Adam McKay’s new film The Big Short, based on the book by acclaimed Moneyball and The Blind Side author Michael Lewis, is a brutal and unapologetic look at the events that led to the housing market crash of 2007. The film does an excellent job at taking some extraordinarily complicated principals and making them accessible, delivering the message with authority and clarity. The entire cast is fantastic, particularly Steve Carell and Christian Bale, and you will leave the theater with a better, yet not necessarily hopeful, understanding of the financial issues that continue to face the United States today.
The film begins in 2005, as hedge fund manager Michael Burry (played with a transformational performance by Christian Bale) discovers that there is a bubble in the housing loan market and that an enormous crash is imminent. Burry purchases over $1 billion worth of shorts on this market, which basically means he is betting against a market that had never failed up until this point. Soon, a variety of investors catch wind and attempt to follow Burry’s lead. These investors include Mark Baum (played by Steve Carell, a character based on real-life hedge fund manager Steve Eisman), Jared Vannett (played by Ryan Gosling, based on real-life trader Greg Lippman), and Ben Rickert (played with one of the only understated performances in the film by the progressively better-with-age Brad Pitt, and based on real-life banker Ben Hockett), the latter of whom is brought out of retirement for “one last job” (to borrow a heist cliché) by newbie investors Charlie Geller and Jamie Shipley (played by John Magaro and Finn Wittrock, respectively).
There are a lot of moving pieces in The Big Short, and Adam McKay does a terrific job breaking down all of the plot elements so they are easy to swallow. For example, any time a difficult concept is introduced (such as subprime mortgage loans or collateralized debt obligations), the film is put on hold for the concept to be explained by a famous celebrity, such as Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez, and chef Anthony Bourdain. An interesting commentary on how famous faces are the only way we will pay attention to otherwise dry explanations of important ideas, this conceit works quite well in giving the audience the exposition it needs to fully appreciate the subject matter of the film. These cutaways aside, you never feel like the speed of the plot is too fast to keep up with, and your reward is that, in the end, you will feel a little bit smarter than you were before the movie began. The film is education disguised as entertainment, and the result is a memorable combination of an engrossing story, blistering dialogue, and pointed social commentary. It’s Ocean’s Eleven meets All the President’s Men.
Another reason the movie works so well is that, while we find ourselves rooting for these investors to profit from the crippling of the American economy, we are constantly reminded of the catastrophic effects of the housing market collapse on the American people. One scene comes to mind in which Mark Baum has several of his employees investigate some houses that are behind on their mortgages. There he finds a man and his son who are renting a home from a landlord who is 90 days late paying his mortgage. We are immediately hit with the fact that this man and his family, and likely millions of others like him, will probably lose their homes through no fault of their own.
There is another scene in which the aforementioned young investors Charlie and Jamie rejoice in a deal they just made that would short millions of dollars worth of unassumingly bad mortgage loans, until Ben (Pitt) scolds them for not acknowledging the effect that this would all have on the American public. It’s a sobering moment in the film. For every victory in The Big Short, the negative result is examined, as well. And throughout it all, even though the characters betting against the American Dream of homeownership is shown as morally foggy, it paints an even bigger picture of greed among the multi-billion dollar investment firms that new they were creating an unsustainable market, and new that they would ultimately be bailed out by the government when it all went down. And the film makes a point to address the fact that, even though the greed of the wealthy led to the destruction of the economy, the blame would be placed on immigrants and poor people, as is so often the case.
The Big Short is an important film to watch and discuss, in terms of its subject matter and continued relevance. In addition to that, it is supremely entertaining, consistently funny, and the performances are excellent. Steve Carell, in particular, shines as the morally-divided Mark Baum, as does Christian Bale as the eccentric investor Michael Burry. The pace of the film is fast, and the script is sharp and accessible. See it on the big screen if you can, and keep an eye out for it during Awards Season.