The Big Short, or Banking on Exceptional Acting

I was determined not to like The Big Short.  I felt the subject – the 2008 financial crisis – was both overdone and no longer interesting.  And from the trailers, I felt this movie would be nothing but a more PG version of The Wolf of Wall Street with an annoying self-righteous tone only an Oscar hopeful film can muster.  But I was wrong.  The Big Short is a brilliantly filmed movie which explains the economic collapse in a manner that is both didactic and engaging.  Documentary, mockumentary, drama, thriller . . . whatever genre you want to call this film, it is money.

The plot of this movie is not actually the important part, and there are no spoilers since it already actually happened.  The Big Short tells the story of the collapse of the housing market from those who managed to profit from it: an investment firm in California, a group linked to Morgan Stanley, and two college kids who were clever enough to figure out exactly what to invest in. The narrator is actually another involved party, a trader for Deutsche Bank.

The investment firm in California is where it all begins with Dr. Michael Burry (a mesmerizing Christian Bale).  Dr. Burry figures out that the collapse of the housing market is imminent because, in order to continue making money through selling bundled mortgages to investors, the banks began relaxing the financial standards of the mortgagees.  Investors however still believed the bundles to be secure, since people always pay their mortgages, right? Wrong. Not everyone is an AAA rated mortgage holder any longer – there is, in fact, a great deal more risk involved.  So Dr. Burry decides to go to a number of banks and bet against the market (termed “shorts”) to a tune of 1.6 billion.  One of these banks happens to be Deutsche bank, where the narrator Jared Vennett (a suave Ryan Gosling) works as a trader.

The group linked to Morgan Stanley finds out about the shorting opportunity from a misdialed phone call from our friend at Deutsche Bank and, after a bit of research, they also take shorts on the mortgage bundles.  This team is a zany bunch of deeply pessimistic individuals led by Mark Baum (Steve Carrel).  It is still a bit odd to see comedian Steve Carrel in a dramatic role, but his strong acting quickly leads you to believe he is the right actor for the role, brilliantly portraying a suppressed and yet deeply emotional man.

If the group at Morgan-Stanley is pessimistic, than Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) is a downright doomsday prepper.  Ben acts as the role model and advisor to two recent college graduates, Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock).  They are looking for an investment opportunity and shorting the housing market seems like the perfect place to put their capital.  They choose to short the AA bundles believing when it all collapses those will fall as well.  They are the only group to do so and risk losing everything in the process.

The manner in which Shipley and Geller find out about the shorting strategy actually brings up an interesting point about this film.  In the film, they find a pamphlet left by our narrator in the lobby of Morgan Stanley.  As soon as the scene ends, one of them turns to the camera and breaks the fourth wall, explaining that actually they had heard about it through a friend of a friend of a friend, but this device seemed better for the screen.  These fourth wall breaking moments happen frequently throughout The Big Short – I don’t think there is any main character who doesn’t have at least one – and they add to the movie’s documentary style feel. By clarifying details and correcting errors, these direct addresses to the audience make the film feel infinitely more credible.

Director Adam McKay’s taste in cinematography is not particularly unique, but, like the plot, this doesn’t detract from The Big Short.  Actual broadcasted television footage is cleverly woven into the film, making the reality of the loss hit a lot harder.  And there are three incredibly random and wonderful vignettes where people, not at all qualified to do so, explain economic terms.  While this device could feel slightly condescending, it is downright hilarious.

The real strength of The Big Short is the acting.  It has an all-star cast and that star power really shines through, adding a level of believability and humanity to the story which is absolutely required for its success.  From Christian Bale’s socially awkward, eccentric math genius to Ryan Gosling’s smooth talking, straight shooting, money hungry banker, the characters feel as real as the people they are based on.  There is not a single weak link in the cast; everyone performs as though they are depicting their own lives.

The Big Short isn’t a fun movie.  Sure, there are moments of comic relief where you find yourself laughing at the incredulity of what is happening.  But in the end you come away feeling disgusted with how Wall Street operates, knowing that nothing has really changed.  We could find ourselves in another housing crisis at any point in the near future and from Wall Street to the government, no one cares.. What The Big Short does perhaps better than any film I have seen so far this year is communicate a strong social message. And it does so by being smart and lucid, breaking down the wall of economic jargon that kept an entire nation in the dark.

Grade: A                                                                                                                                The only movie about the 2008 financial collapse that you need to watch.

Rating: R                                                                                                                         People tend to drop a couple F-bombs when billions are on the line.

The Big Short, Paramount Pictures                                                            Runtime: 130 minutes