Dec 14, 2015

The Big Short


A fun, hair-raising, if rather tardy, outrage-inducing satirical romp by Adam McKay, based on Michael Lewis' book about the financial whizzes who realized that the world economy was going to tank back in 2007 due to subprime lending practices. It is a gnarly topic, but breezily explained by a very game cast. Instead of going for the full-out dramatization of a non-fiction book, McKay and co-screenwriter Charles Randolph use some fun devices to keep the story urgent. Some of the characters speak in voiceover and break the fourth wall, roping us in as accomplices. Celebrity guest stars, like Margot Robbie in a bubble bath, explain to us in almost plain English some of these incomprehensible, diabolical instruments. It's 80% exposition, but it doesn't feel like it.
All the actors deserve kudos for credibly wrapping their tongues around the deliberately impenetrable financial jargon. They are all fantastic. Christian Bale, who rarely gets the opportunity to be funny, is melancholy and awkward as Dr. Michael Burry, a t-shirt wearing renegade who managed a big fund in California, looked at mortgage defaults and decided to short that market. That is, to bet against it.
A very funny Ryan Gosling stars as an AAA asshole called Jared Vennett, a big shot at Deutsche Bank, who decides to go into the shorting business for himself, like a rogue cowboy (this kind of behavior is applauded at banks). An excellent Steve Carell plays fund manager Mark Baum, and a wonderful team of supporting players rounds up this white male saga of financial chicanery and destruction.
The story follows how different people started snooping around the securitized mortgage industry, to slowly and painfully reveal that the world would collapse on a tailspin of unregulated greed, corruption, malfeasance and corporate criminality, which not only went unpunished, but was rewarded with a trillion-dollar taxpayer bailout. The movie works the audience up into a lather of disbelief and outrage. It is fitting that it opens with a quote from Mark Twain, the father of American satire. If it were drama, it would be too bitter to swallow. But satire can hurt more than drama, and McKay is delightfully, and rightfully, incensed about it. He manages to keep the laughs and the suspense pumping while clearly explaining what happened.
It is a strange vicarious thrill to find oneself rooting for these banker guys shorting billions of dollars of toxic instruments, and waiting (hoping!) on the edge of our seats to see if they cash out. Some of them seem to have a conscience, like Baum; others like Vennett, don't. Others, like Burry, are ruled by their own strict professional compass. All of them are brilliant masters of the financial universe, and it takes them forever to figure it out. Meanwhile, the audience cannot help but be seduced by the allure of the billions of dollars bandied about in conversation. We are eavesdropping where we will never be welcome. These terrible guys are our fantasy proxies, which is rather depressing. The tension between the serious outrage and the comedy is deftly handled, but what exactly are we laughing at? We were played, and are still being played like idiots.
Together with cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, who is known for his gung-ho work on films like The Hurt Locker, Captain Phillips and United 93, McKay keeps the complicated explanation moving and stitches together collages of images of recent history with fast cuts of how rosy things looked back before 2008 and the human debris that followed: people living in tents, lines snaking around depressing job fairs.
My favorite scenes are at the local level, when Baum and his guys go to Florida to take an actual look at the housing market. It's a sweltering ghost town. Mail piles up in abandoned houses, gators loll about in brackish swimming pools. Strippers take out loans on five houses, while local banker bros brag about giving loans to people without incomes, trying to impress the horrified bankers from New York.
McKay feels the need to insert a couple of discreet but unnecessary touches of humanity. Baum is reeling from a terrible loss, which is what makes him into a crusader. We see a family lose their home and it is sad, but I don't think the movie needs these tears. It is devastating enough as it shows us how the system is made to game us; how despite endless protestation, nothing has changed. We're dupes in the biggest con on Earth. We are still living the fallout of that disaster, the government is still not regulating the banks, and banks are still creating toxic products, albeit with different names. Politicians are still at the service of Wall Street. The middle class is being strangled, and somehow poor people and immigrants, as Baum says, are blamed for everything.
Nothing to laugh at, really.

ps: Check out this unsurprisingly mean-spirited review and masterpiece of cognitive dissonance from The Wall Street Journal. It's kind of a hoot.

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