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Money, Money, Money

Paramount Pictures
 130 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed by: Adam McKay 
Starring: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling
The Big Short

A few years ago, I took an investment course that used a text which had been written before the 2008 financial crisis. Among the many investments the book discussed was something called a “credit default swap.” I passed the course but must confess that I didn’t really understand what a credit default swap was and had no idea what role it played in the crisis (nor did the author of the text have any idea how the swap would come to be used). Only after watching The Big Short, a movie written and directed by Adam McKay, the man responsible for Anchorman and Talladega Nights, did I really understand the term and a whole lot more about the crisis. What’s even more amazing is that McKay was able to explain the crisis better than any other dramatic film has and at the same time tell a highly witty story.


McKay isn’t solely responsible for The Big Short; the film is based on a non-fiction book by Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball. But in adapting Lewis’ book, McKay decided to use a light comic touch to heighten the absurdity of what went on during a crisis fueled by greed unchecked by reason. The crisis resulted from the crash of the housing market in 2006 and 2007, a crash that in turn largely resulted from a flood of subprime adjustable rate mortgages issued to marginal credit risks who would have great difficulty keeping up payments once the artificially low teaser rates expired in 2007. These mortgages were then packaged into bond-like financial instruments and sold and resold by various banks as if they were the most secure bonds on the market, which, of course, they weren’t.


In The Big Short, McKay focuses on the handful of savvy investors who realized that the housing market was due to collapse and made money by, in essence, betting on such a collapse. Most of the characters in the film, except for Michael Burry (a real hedge fund manager played by Christian Bale) are thinly fictionalized versions of major players in the crisis. As in real life, the movie version of Burry is a California hedge fund manger who crunches all the numbers and sees that there will be a host of defaults in the near future. Armed with that knowledge, Burry persuades Deutsche Bank, one of the world’s biggest, to issue him a new type of instrument, the aforementioned credit default swap, which would pay him once the mortgages lost value due to defaults.


News of Burry’s investments reaches Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), a Deutsche Bank trader who realizes what his bank has done and how much it stands to lose. Vennett in turn goes to maverick hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) to try to persuade Baum to invest in credit default swaps as well under an arrangement that would allow Vennett to profit. Baum serves as the audience surrogate in The Big Short. Even though he’s deeply distrustful of financial institutions, Baum is still skeptical that everyone at them could be blind to the risk. So, he investigates, first in Florida, where foreclosures are already starting to rise, and then at an investment conference in Las Vegas, where the bankers and brokers from companies like Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, and Washington Mutual (all of which were about to fail), regale him with stories of how much money they are all going to make if Baum invests with them. That convinces Baum to invest… in the market’s collapse.


Despite The Big Short’s serious subject matter, McKay for the most part treats the film as a breezy comedy. And, in fact, much of what went on during the financial crisis was so bizarre that viewers would probably have difficulty taking it seriously. An example is a stripper whom Baum meets at her club and who tells him, in the middle of a private dance, that she owns five different properties with five different adjustable mortgages and is blissfully unaware, until Baum talks to her, that she’s going to have to pay a lot more money in mortgage payments in the near future. And when Baum and the rest of his staff visit a subdivision that’s become a near ghost town due to foreclosures and abandoned construction efforts, they encounter an alligator in a nearly empty swimming pool.


The film also uses some interesting techniques to help explain its financial concepts. Vennett narrates the movie and at times breaks character to address the audience directly. McKay also uses some decidedly non-intellectual celebrities like Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez, playing themselves, to discuss some highly complex financial instruments. Light touch or not, the explanations work; I’ve rarely heard high finance discussed in a manner that’s so accessible for general audiences.


Although there’s a lot of humor in Big Short, the film raises some serious ethical and moral questions as well. It’s clear that many people involved in the mortgage process simply had no idea that the market could collapse; instead, the skyrocketing profits seemed like a license to print money. But what also becomes clear is that many of them simply didn’t care. Jared Vennett is no different morally from his colleagues; he just had better judgment about the housing market. A couple of small investors (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock), who wanted to start a hedge fund using a couple of hundred thousand dollars in inherited money, become giddy at the thought of being able to join the big boys.


Ironically, the small investors team up with Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), a veteran trader who can make the direct investments they can’t. Rickert is well aware of what’s going on in the market and, indeed, he had retired earlier because he didn’t want to be a part of the cutthroat industry. Bur, for reasons the film never really makes clear, he goes along with the plan.


Christian Bale and Steve Carell, in a pair of Oscar-worthy performances, play the most complex characters, those with an actual conscience. Bale’s Burry nearly gives up on the fund due to the pressure he gets from his own investors who are scared to death he is wrong, and that the losses they endure as the housing market continues to rise will just keep mounting. But Mark Baum is the only person who really sees the big picture,, namely, that he will be making a fortune while millions of others lose their jobs and their entire savings. Steve Carell gives the best performance of his career here.


The Big Short answers a lot of questions but leaves others tantalizingly up in the air. Along the way, it raises new questions about what can be done to prevent a recurrence of the housing debacle. Adam McKay doesn’t pretend to have the answers here; indeed, there’s a lot of disagreement among experts about exactly who was to blame and what should be done. But the one thing McKay has done is to take what seemed to many to be impossibly complex finance and turned it into a movie that will appeal to fans of Anchorman as much as to actual TV anchormen.

Read other reviews of The Big Short:


The Big Short (2015) on IMDb