When I think of the collapse of the housing market and the beginning of the Great Recession, I don’t immediately think of a comedy. Millions of hard working Americans losing their homes and pensions and having to bear the burden of a government sponsored bailout makes me think of a hard-hitting and moving drama. Well, The Big Short is both of those. It is more than a comedy, but it is also tremendously entertaining even while it made me really mad and sad.
Adam McKay took the directorial chair in this adaptation of Michael Lewis’ book. McKay has previously been known for a number of Will Ferrell comedies like Anchorman, The Other Guys and Step Brothers which kind of explains the tone of the film. Lewis has been responsible for writing a number of books that have made it to the big screen despite their traditionally dry subject matter, think Moneyball (another Brad Pitt Project) and to a lesser extent The Blind Side.
The Big Short is set in the years leading up to the financial meltdown of 2008 and tells the story of a handful of investors who saw it coming. Bitter humor (primarily delivered by an excellent narrator in Ryan Gosling) guides us through an educational journey that ultimately ends in tragedy (for everyone but our protagonists). The housing market is usually a rock-solid investment. But these guys read the signs and started suspecting that it was a skyscraper built on sand and it was getting ready to collapse. The “experts” of the day told them that it was impossible, That it couldn’t happen.
What was their argument? Because it never has. But they had no clue how blinded they had become by their own greed and self-interest. They continued giving loans to people, no matter if they’re qualified. And not just any loans but sub-prime adjustable rate mortgage loans. In some ways, it’s a horror story: We were all affected by the illegal and fraudulent activity that led to this downfall, and most of the culprits received no punishment (in fact many used the bailout money to give themselves substantial bonuses).
The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him. – Leo Tolstoy, 1897
Despite its ominous and (let’s be honest) boring subject matter. The film is so entertaining, I had to go back and see it a second time. It sports a star-studded cast (Brad Pitt, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, and Christian Bale) effortlessly operating at the top of their game. McKay uses a multitude of techniques to tell the story. There are plenty of fourth-wall breaking moments and monologues, my favorite being Anthony Bourdain using a cooking metaphor to explain the disgusting product that is a Collateralized Debt Obligation. There are jump cuts, slow motion, foreshadowing and flash backs. The filmmakers use any and all tricks to explain a complicated mess of financial underhandedness in order to help the audience understand, because as our narrator tells us, “Mortgage backed securities, subprime loans, tranches… Pretty confusing right? Does it make you feel bored? Or stupid? Well, it’s supposed to. Wall Street loves to use confusing terms to make you think only they can do what they do. Or even better, for you to leave them the f*** alone.” The banks, mortgage brokers, the credit ratings agencies and the government manipulated people in the nation and world into investing in worthless packages of bonds, and it behooves the director and writer, Adam McKay, to use all cinematic tricks to explain and untangle the financial corruption. The miracle is that the film deciphers the economic melt-down well while entertaining its audience.
It would probably be a good time to compare this film to two other recent films which addressed similar issues but in very different ways. First you have the over the top Martin Scorsese film, Wolf of Wall Street. That film became known for the number of F-bombs it dropped while attempting to make the world of investing look cool. Then there was the Oscar winning documentary by Charles Ferguson, Inside Job. It had a cool narrator in Matt Damon, but you almost needed a degree in Finance to follow along as they explained the crisis and spoke to experts. I feel like Adam McKay sought to walk a like between these too films, it is not over the top in an attempt to be cool, nor is it preachy and heavy handed. It reminds me of a heist movie in the vein of Ocean’s Eleven, the casino gets taken for all it’s worth, but in the end the house still wins.
I’ll let you watch the movie for yourself to get to know the awesome characters that McKay develops for us. As a middle-class worker, I could not have less in common with these guys, but dang it if I didn’t feel myself rooting for and empathizing with them. We’ve got a socially backward fund manager who blasts death metal in his office. The two young guys who started on their own fund while they were still in college. Knowing that they are out of their league, they call in the investing giant turned reclusive doomsday-prepper. Then there’s the hedge-fund manager (and his team) with a bad attitude toward banks.
I already mentioned that our tour guide is played by Ryan Gosling, he is a subprime specialist at Deutsche Bank who is certain things will crash. He’s slicker than a used car salesman, but convincing and hilarious. It’s difficult to root for them when that means rooting against the economy and your own wallet. But McKay uses their formidable talents and personalities in such a way that makes it nearly impossible not to.