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Film Review – The Big Short

4 min read

A long long time ago, like in 2007, the “financial crisis” hit and the world nearly came to an end. Wall Street had, perhaps unintentionally, created such an enormous monster that when the crash did occur, it created one of the biggest economic recessions in history and had worldwide repercussions. As the 2015 Paramount Pictures release The Big Short explains, it started innocently enough: some Wall Street bond traders wanted to drum up more business so they created a new security based on home mortgages. Pension funds and institutional investors couldn’t get enough of these safe new investments, so the Wall Street wizkids decided to feed the demand by creating new bond products based on the not-so-safe subprime mortgages. When those were running out, they dreamed up a way to have an unlimited supply of these securities by packaging the crappy bonds together to create a super-product called a CDO. One would think that the crappiest of mortgages, bundled into a bond would be crappy, and then lots of those crappy bonds bundled together into a CDO would be…well REALLY crappy. Unfortunately, the ratings agencies like Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s, afraid of losing the billions of dollars they were making off of Wall Street, decided (erroneously) to rate them as the safest of investments. The monster was now fully-grown and it was very hungry. The demand it created for mortgages meant lending standards hit rock bottom and basically ANYONE could buy a home (or homes). The mortgage lenders were raking it in because the subprime loans paid mortgage brokers 5 times what a normal mortgage would pay. Realtors were raking it in by selling the same houses over and over again as home values skyrocketed and sales churned. Home builders couldn’t build houses fast enough. Bond traders were taking home 8 figure bonuses. Everyone was making a fortune and thought it would last forever. Of course it was madness and wouldn’t last. But at the time…everyone seemed to be in a hypnotic daze, not realizing that the emperor had no clothes.

The Big Short Insert

Well not everyone. A few people did see the disaster looming, and they are the subject of the Adam McKay written and directed, The Big Short. Not only did they see it coming, but they took huge risks to bet against the entire system, and if (when) the crash happened they stood to make huge profits from it (like billions). Based on true events, The Big Short is a fascinating peek into the entire saga as four of the more prescient fund managers realize the lunacy of the whole situation and try to shore up their bets in time, before it all crashes. For some of the more complicated financial concepts, Mckay uses a clever technique for explaining them by breaking away from the story to have well-known celebrities who are not part of the story do the explaining, such as Margot Robbie naked in a bathtub, Selena Gomez playing blackjack, or Anthony Bourdain making fish stew. It adds even more laughs to a story that would be completely unbelievable if you didn’t already know that it was true.

McKay’s fantastic screenplay is delivered by some of Hollywood’s most respected actors. Steve Carrell has a leading role as Mark Baum, the what-you-see-is-what-you-get fund manager who is haunted by the death of his brother years earlier, and Marisa Tomei who plays his wife. Both are excellent, and I thought Carell has his best performance since Foxcatcher. Christian Bale stars as Mike Burry, the brilliant but socially inept fund manager who was probably the first person to predict the collapse. Though he has received some accolades for his performance I don’t feel he really connected with the part, especially in some of the earlier scenes in the film.  Brad Pitt is notable, but his role is quite small and Finn Witrock (American Horror Story) as fund manager Jamie Shipley redeemed himself in my eyes after his dreadful performance in Unbroken. For me though, it was Ryan Gosling who really stood out. His portrayal of the slick and smug Wall Street bond trader Jarred Vennett was spot-on. He also narrated the film and was fantastic.

Very well-written, The Big Short is one of those films where you kind of already know how the story ends, but nevertheless is completely enjoyable. It is an entertaining and in-depth look into a story that despite all the media coverage is still quite misunderstood. As the film asks several times “Are they crooks or just that stupid?” of course it’s very complicated and the answer isn’t completely clear. What is delightful about it is that It is essentially a monster movie, but the monster isn’t some alien creature, it is ourselves. And like any good monster movie, the monster isn’t totally destroyed in the en- it is only sleeping, waiting just long enough until we forget.