I feel like there’s a large number of people who are going to see the trailer and cast for The Big Short and get blindsided by a lot of banking and mortgage jargon about the housing market that will fly over their heads. It’s not outlandish at all to think that as it kind of happened to me. The good thing about Adam McKay’s new film, based on the Michael Lewis book, is that he understands how confusing the whole thing is and is there to help you along the way with some interesting processes.
Based around the housing market crash of 2008, this film is a bitingly cynical look at the few people who saw the inevitable burst of terrible mortgages and loans from as far away as three years before it. In his dramatic debut, Adam McKay expands on the end title lesson he gave us in The Other Guys for a scathing finger-pointing look at people who tried and succeeded in profiting off of the stupidity of an entire nation. Unfortunately, the profit didn’t come from the right source.
The story is broken up into multiple storylines, all starting in 2005 with Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a socially awkward but brilliant hedge fund manager working for Scion Capital, who notices that investors could buy investing in undervalued stocks, and later betting heavily against subprime mortgages. This is all predicated on there being a financial crisis, that Burry believes is imminent, but no one in Scion shares the same prediction.
Through the talks between interns, brash and flashy mortgage trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) gets wind of Burry’s discovery and sees a massive opportunity for profit. After exhausting all of his resources, he manages to land a meeting with Mark Baum (Steve Carrell), a money manager running a unit for Morgan Stanley. Baum questions the logic and numbers behind Vennett’s claim and heads to Florida for some investigation.
If anyone has seen the film 99 Homes, which came out earlier this year, the film follows the homeowners in Florida’s side of the housing crash, as bad loans came back to bite these people on the ass and force them out of their homes. The Big Short precedes all of this and focuses on the lead to the crash. Baum and his team go on a ride along with a realtor who tells them how each house is constantly flipped for hundreds of thousands dollars more each time, creating a money funnel for those involved. We get a scene afterwards of two of the greasiest low life twenty somethings working as mortgage brokers signing up to sixty bad loans a day. With his rising disgust, Baum realizes that everything Vennett has been saying is true. The bubble is about to burst.
There’s no way to say it nicely, this film will absolutely disgust you and it’s not fully through our main focus characters but through the reality of the situation that McKay is presenting. Is it the fault of Vennett, Baum and his team who kind of exploited this? I would say no. I think they just saw an opportunity and pounced on it. I say it’s the fault of everyone involved in structuring it, who are depicted in the beginning of the room as sleazy fat businessmen in a smoky boardroom in the 70s, scheming to line their own pockets only to have the government and media facilitate this in every way.
The most interesting thing about The Big Short for me is how much at the beginning the film feels like a comedy of errors where all of these characters are just trying to get a foothold in something they can ride as the ground falls out from beneath everyone else. This shifts when the reality of the situation doesn’t come to a head as quickly as they believed it would and by the end, the real consequence on America and the world around them doesn’t make anything feel like a victory at all and damages some people irreparably: ethically and morally.
Make no mistake about it, the dialogue of this film will make your head spin and you may be numbed by it all in the end. Adam McKay also brings a directional style that will leave you scratching your head with abrupt cuts, peppering in of pop culture images of the time and graphics that appear on the screen to help you try to make sense of everything. There’s also some stunt casting of celebrities to help physically explain to you what certain terminology means. In the case of Margot Robbie in a bathtub, still found it hard to follow, but, come on, it’s Margot Robbie in a bathtub! I think The Big Short is among the stronger films this year with a great cast and palpable subject material. It get’s a four out of five.