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The Big Short

A couple of years ago, there was this movie called The Wolf of Wall Street. It was a raunchy, raunchy three-hour dramatic comedy about an actual Wall Street stockbroker and all the illegal shit he pulled so he could fatten his own wallet and party harder than anyone in history, all while the lower and middle classes were losing their life savings. It’s a good movie, and it got a handful of very prominent Oscar nominations. Yet even at the time, there were complaints that the movie was too long, that it didn’t do enough to focus on the very real human cost of all this criminal debauchery, and that it could have commented more directly on the market crash that’s come to define our nation’s economy.

With this in mind, The Big Short might be considered “The Wolf of Wall Street 2.0″. It’s a movie made for the very explicit purpose of depicting the housing market crash in great detail, and it sets aside a few minutes of screen time to show how a typical family was affected by the crash. And what’s better, it’s a much more reasonable two hours long. Though I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if there was an unrated extended cut out there somewhere.

While Short may not be anywhere near as bawdy as Wolf was, it’s still more than over-the-top enough for a work of absurdist black comedy. Because that’s really the best response to the system that created the housing crash. After all, nobody’s really upset that a whole bunch of people got greedy. We’re upset that a whole bunch of people got greedy, their greed was allowed to run rampant, and nothing was ever really done about it because nobody had a damn clue what was going on until it was too late.

The whole system is so transparently idiotic, and anyone trusted with a Wall Street management position should have had the brains to see this coming, so an angry dramatic thriller would never have worked. Far better to treat the system like the cruel twisted joke that it is, depicting the traders involved as the shithead clowns they are, and let the anger naturally follow from that.

Consider: The lynchpin of the crisis was subprime mortgages. In layman’s terms, this means mortgages that were several months delinquent and unlikely to ever get paid. Basically, anytime you hear or read the word “subprime,” you should take that to mean “shit.” There is a system to rate the mortgages, but it involves the banks paying a company (such as Standard & Poor’s or Moody’s) to secure a rating. Which means that if the company doesn’t give the more favorable ratings that the banks want, the banks will take their money and their business somewhere else. If it became the industry standard that movie studios paid critics to review their films, the result might be something similar.

The end result is that mortgages are grossly overvalued, leading to the illusion of money that isn’t really there. And the banks still bought and traded these shitty mortgages because… well, they were trading thousands of mortgages at a time in bundles of varying quality, and who has the time or manpower to do all that reading? So instead of actually sorting through all the pages and pages of deliberately unreadable dreck, they just take everything at face value and move on. Sort of like how no one bothers to actually read an End User License Agreement before hitting “Accept”.

So really, what we’re looking at here is a system built and run by people who want to get rich quick without any effort and by any means necessary. What’s more, it’s also a system that’s expressly made to be complicated so that everyone else will leave the Wall Street insiders alone and pay them for their expertise.

The end result is a system made to be so confusing that everyone — and I do mean everyone — was fooled into thinking that it worked. While the movie goes after the big banks and the Wall Street assholes who were getting rich by inflating the value of shitty mortgages, the filmmakers don’t stop there. They go after the politicians who cut SEC funding to the bone, and the SEC regulators who’d gladly jump ship to take lucrative Wall Street jobs (and can do so legally). They go after the investors whose money fuels this system because they don’t want to know a single goddamn thing except whether their investment is paying off. They go after the would-be real estate agents and mortgage brokers who want to make money flipping houses and getting rich in the short term, without any thought about the long-term viability or human cost of those actions. The filmmakers even go after the corrupt landlords who pocket rent money instead of paying their debts, which is a huge part of where subprime mortgages come from in the first place.

The filmmakers express outrage over the fact that only one banker ever went to jail over the whole scandal. But while I don’t think the filmmakers even realized it, the movie makes the point that if justice was truly served, millions and millions of people from all walks of life would have to be imprisoned. For decades, the housing market was considered to be the bedrock of our economy, which means that anyone who’s ever had money in the stock market probably made money from all of this at some point.

The only reason why this whole mess got to be as huge as it did, and why it kept going on for so long, and why nobody has ever been held accountable for it, is because the whole mess was built on people lying. Not just to each other, but to themselves. Everyone so desperately wanted to believe that the good times would keep rolling in, and that the system was sturdier than it was, that nobody realized how huge the lies had gotten and how much damage those lies could do. Not until what went up inevitably came down. And by that time, sorting through all the bullshit to figure out who knew what and when would be borderline impossible.

And so we’re entirely clear, the main characters aren’t immune either. We’ve got Christian Bale playing Dr. Michael Burry, the eccentric hedge fund manager (and crappy drummer) who first saw the housing bubble forming. Unfortunately, while Burry plays a significant role in the first act, the plot has a very difficult time justifying his presence through the rest of the movie. The first act also goes into a fair bit of detail about Burry’s childhood, which proves to be entirely irrelevant.

It’s Steve Carell’s character who does a lot more to drive the plot forward. He plays Mark Baum, a trader who catches wind of the housing market’s imminent collapse and decides to short (that means “to bet against”) the housing market’s growth. It also bears mentioning that Baum is a self-righteous loudmouth with a very short temper and a tremendous grudge against the capitalists who profit from screwing over taxpayers. Baum is also reeling from the suicide of his brother, which does nothing to help his anger management problems.

Carell gets so many of the best lines, he plays comic bewilderment and righteous outrage so well, and he gets in some fine dramatic moments as well. Foxcatcher can go to hell — this is the movie that should get Carell an Oscar nod.

Baum is assisted by his employees, played by Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater, and Jeremy Strong. All of them leave a fine impression and show solid comedic timing with relatively minor roles. That also goes for Marisa Tomei, whose very presence is enough to elevate the character of Baum’s wife in the two brief scenes she has. I should also mention the incomparable Melissa Leo, who pokes her head in for what’s admittedly a rather funny cameo.

Ryan Gosling plays Jared Vennett, the investment banker who first clued Baum and company into the loan default swapping scheme. Vennett comes off as a guy who’s charming and likeable in a “scam artist” sort of way, which fits very neatly into Gosling’s onscreen persona.

We’ve also got John Magaro and Finn Wittrock respectively playing Charlie Geller and Jamie Shipley, a couple of naive wannabe investors who buy into loan default swapping with no idea of what they’re really getting into. The two of them are mentored by a misanthropic retired stock market guru named Ben Rickert, played by Brad Pitt phoning it in.

It’s imperative to note that even though these characters may be our protagonists, we are never ever led to think of them as heroes. Remember, these men are betting on the collapse of the American economy, perhaps even the entire world economy. Millions of people will lose their homes and their jobs, maybe even their lives, and these men stand to profit. They could become billionaires (and that’s not a typo, that’s “billionaire” with a “b”) from the same event that drove countless Americans into bankruptcy and ruin.

So really, they’re no different from the corrupt banks they’re fighting against. Moreover, even if these men are right — and the housing market will collapse for the first time in history, in open defiance of everything that everyone knows about the economy — where do they think the money will come from? It’s the banks who happily opened up insurance policies on the mortgages, safe in their certainty that they were taking insurance premiums for a disaster that would never happen. So if the banks are insuring the mortgage debts, and if the banks go belly-up when the housing market crashes, then who’s going to pay on the default swaps when the time comes? When the economy has collapsed so thoroughly that there’s no money left on Wall Street, how is anyone on Wall Street going to make any money?

If it sounds like this movie is centered around a lot of complex financial dealings, that’s because it is. However, a huge part of what makes this movie so great is that it works to define convoluted Wall Street bullshit in layman’s terms that we can all understand. And the filmmakers resort to some outrageous methods in order to do this.

The film will stop dead in its tracks and cut to a completely unrelated scene in which celebrities talk directly to the camera and describe what happened in the housing market collapse. Because random celebrity cameos are always a crowd pleaser (just ask the Muppets), and watching them demonstrate obtuse concepts in accessible terms is both funny and informative. So if we need to understand synthetic CDOs, Selena Gomez tells us about it by way of blackjack. If you don’t even know what a CDO is, here’s Anthony Bourdain to illustrate the concept by way of cooking. If you don’t even know what a subprime mortgage is, at least you can watch Margot Robbie sip champagne in a bubble bath while explaining it. Similarly, Karen Gillan appears just long enough to give us some eye candy while explaining how the SEC is completely ineffectual, though she technically does so in character, unlike the previous examples.

(Side note: Getting back to Margot Robbie, this is the same impossibly beautiful woman whose breakout performance was in the aforementioned Wolf of Wall Street. Funny coincidence, that.)

As if that wasn’t enough, the film will resort to narrative voice-overs, fourth wall breaks, onscreen graphics, and even Jenga blocks. Just so long as it explains the backhanded Wall Street methods and terminology to us, nothing is off-limits. It’s all done in a way that’s genuinely surprising and funny while also giving the audience a more clear idea of what exactly led to the housing crisis. And in this case, to know what happened is to be royally pissed off that it happened, and that it could very easily happen again.

The downside is that it results in a movie with a very inconsistent and disjointed feel. The editing is a crucial factor here, particularly in how the film will whiplash from the main plot to one of the aforementioned celebrity sidebars and back again. Even throughout the rest of the movie, the film will throw in all these random cutaways. Some of these cutaways were meant to show us what else was happening in that time period, but the effect only serves to distance the audience instead of drawing us in. Other times, the movie will cut to some image meant to symbolize what’s being talked about, but again, the effect serves primarily as an unwelcome distraction. Though there are some moments — particularly when cuts are made to show parallels between characters — that work very well.

It takes a long while to get into the groove of The Big Short, but if you can get used to the film’s off-the-wall presentation, you’ll find a movie that is tremendously enlightening, darkly hilarious, and perfectly infuriating in the best way. The good performances are very good, and even the bad performances are nothing worse than passable. It’s a whip-smart movie that’s not afraid to be bold and direct, and it uses humor to provoke righteous outrage like only the best sociopolitical satires can.

I very strongly recommend checking the film out, but if you have to wait for the DVD, I don’t think you’d lose anything. The movie will still be relevant for at least the foreseeable future, God help us all.

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