When the Levee Breaks
The Big Short, based on the non -fiction book by Michael Lewis, is a film that I intended to watch in theaters when it came out. Like all of the films released toward the end of 2015 (with the exception of The Peanuts Movie and Star Wars), however, I missed out on it. The Christmas season is always busy, but it seemed even more so than normal last year. Unlike some films though, The Big Short stuck in my head.
My bachelor’s degree is in business, so films about the financial sector hold at least a fleeting interest for me. The Big Short though, with it’s odd cast and Adam McKay directing and writing (with Charles Randolph), held an even stranger appeal. It was a (mostly) serious film, directed by a man known for comedies, about the worst financial catastrophe since the great depression and the men who profited from it. Color me intrigued.
The Big Short concerns itself with two primary players (Michael Burry played by Christian Bale and Mark Baum played by Steve Carell), and a large cadre of supporting players who benefited from shorting (betting against) the subprime housing bubble of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
In 2005, Burry, an eccentric hedge fund manager who trained as a neurosurgeon, was one of the first people to truly peel the layers back on the subprime loan industry. What he found was an industry built on loans purposely given to people with bad credit. Burry surmised that these loans, which basically worked by enticing/tricking people into variable interest rates by offering extremely low payments to start, were built to fail and figured that an impending collapse would happen around 2007. Burry then used this information, which most financial analysts thought was absurd, to bet against banking industry.
The moves made by Burry are brought to the attention of trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling). After some research of his own, Vennett determines that Burry is probably right and decides to start looking for other investors to join him in following Burry’s lead. A prescient misplaced call lands him at the office of Baum, a specialized hedge fund manager. After investigating Vennett and Burry’s findings, Baum is convinced that they are correct in their assessment and begins to place his own bets against the housing market.
Investors Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), after accidentally finding a prospectus from Vennett in a bank waiting area, decide that they want in on the action. The problem is that due to their relative inexperience and low-capital, none of the big banks will give them the time of day. They reach out to retired trader Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) for help. Rickert, after becoming convinced of the veracity of the impending housing market collapse, agrees to help the young traders out.
The Big Short works exceptionally well, particularly considering that a lot of the financial terms it deals with will be totally foreign to most people. The film never speaks down to the audience, and it actually goes out of it’s way to point out how the financial sector likes to make things, that are actually easy to understand, more difficult than they have to be. For example, by using a term like subprime as opposed to below average, the wording makes the loan sound alternately more professional and more desirable. In reality though, a subprime mortgage could very easily be described as a suckers bet; something that has more of a chance to fail than succeed.
The cast is excellent across the board, from the main players to the supporting cast. Some of the funniest and saddest scenes are from bit players on trips to Miami and Las Vegas. These scenes really open the film up, and put faces to the good and the bad elements of any financial boom period. For everyone who wins just as many lose, and some lose worse than others.
I really can’t recommend The Big Short more. It is one of the best films that I watched last year, and quite honestly one of my favorite films I’ve watched in some time, and the wife liked it as well so it’s not just me. Adam McKay has proved that he can do more than just direct funny people doing funny things, and in a movie of stand-out performances Steve Carell really proves his acting chops. Carell has been good in dramatic roles before, but he hits the dueling characteristics of Baum with ease in this one and really knocks it out of the park. So go watch this movie. You’ll be entertained, and you just might learn something.
Until next time…