Considering that the labyrinthine complexity deliberately cloaked in arcane jargon that is high finance these days is the sort of subject that makes a lot of people’s eyes glaze over when someone actually tries to explain it, there have been a remarkable number of movies made about it. Some, like Wall Street and Margin Call, have actually been pretty good; other, not so much. Regular readers of Almanac Weekly may recall that this film reviewer reacted to The Wolf of Wall Street with a violent revulsion unlike any other movie that I’ve seen in many a year.
So it was with some trepidation that I betook myself to watch Adam McKay’s screen version of The Big Short, Michael Lewis’ scathing exposé of how the 2008 banking collapse came about, as seen through the eyes of market outsiders who realized that the housing bubble not only existed, but that its abrupt deflation was in fact inevitable. I’m delighted to be able to report that this new film is a bracing tonic that managed to clean out some of the bad taste still lingering in my mouth after Wolf.
In fact, The Big Short might be described as the anti-Wolf of Wall Street, insofar as it keeps coming back around to the working-class people who stand to lose their homes and have their savings and retirement funds wiped out if the film’s cluster of unlikely heroes win their long-odds bet on the economy tanking. Whereas Wolf infuriated me by lionizing smug market wheeler-dealers who didn’t care who suffered as long as they could sustain their own hyperdecadent lifestyle, while keeping those doomed blue-collar investors safely tucked offscreen, The Big Short is about a small group of guys who are motivated as much by the desire to expose the corruption of the banking industry as by personal greed. We can’t help rooting for them to prevail, even though that means that the Great Recession will be triggered by Act 3.
I wasn’t sure at first that I was going to like this movie; McKay’s directing approach here is a strange stylistic pastiche whose rhyme and reason creep up on the viewer somewhat stealthily. Right from the get-go, there’s lots of breaking through the fourth wall, with Ryan Gosling as Jared Vennett (based on Lewis’ real-life investor Greg Lippmann) serving as intermittent narrator and addressing the audience directly. Editing and camera-switching are often disorientingly choppy; focus pulls linger a beat too long on the blurry; conversations fade in and out and overlap in a manner that would do the late Robert Altman proud. Most alarming are the loud bursts of music and flashes of scantily clad gyrating dancers that at first evoke the misogynistic excesses of Wolf of Wall Street, but then begin to seem more like parodies of them. Most of all I was reminded, tonewise, of Robert Downey, Sr.’s brilliantly transgressive 1969 satire on Madison Avenue, Putney Swope.
Then there’s the economics lesson of it all, which goes down amazingly digestibly. The Big Short is every bit as lucid as Robert Reich’s terrific documentary Inequality for All as it explains such market argot as collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and makes us understand why such financial products are so false and dangerous to the economy, without ever seeming to bog down in exposition. Whereas Reich made the relationship between middle-class income and overall economic growth crystal-clear through the use of sprightly animated charts and graphs, The Big Short’s characters illustrate the meaning of “tranches” by use of a Jenga puzzle with its levels labeled with different bond rating categories. Naturally, inevitably, it topples, Bs and AAAs together. In other scenes, a difficult term is explained by a silly cutaway to a celebrity cameo appearance (actress Margot Robbie in a bathtub, chef Anthony Bourdain at a chopping block, singer Selena Gomez at a roulette wheel).
Did I mention that this film is really, really funny? Yes, it’s essentially an angry screed about a very dark subject: how Americans – the whole world, in fact – got royally screwed over by a banking industry that was mired in obfuscation, denial and outright fraud, and how no one ultimately paid for its mistakes except the little people. But The Big Short is buoyed from beginning to end by the blackest of humor, its protagonists an ill-assorted lot of cynical cranks, socially inept statistics geeks and Wall Street dropouts.
Bringing their hilarious personal foibles to life is an outstanding ensemble cast, led by Christian Bale as eccentric doctor-turned-hedge-fund-manager Michael Burry, Steve Carell as apoplectic anti-bank crusader Mark Baum (based on Lewis’ Steve Eisman), Hamish Linklater, Rafe Spall and Jeremy Strong as Baum’s three stooges, John Magaro and Finn Wittrock as two keen young start-up investors from Boulder and Brad Pitt as their granolahead ex-Wall-Streeter mentor. Their chemistry as they all try to desist from strangling one another while anxiously waiting for the housing market to crash is an utter delight.
I can’t recall the last time that I walked out of a movie with a totally downbeat ending with a big goofy grin on my face, but The Big Short did it to me. It’s like the Dr. Strangelove of Wall Street films. I highly recommend that you go see it.