The economic collapse of 2008 was horrible, yet many of us have no idea how and why it all went down. This is where The Big Short excels: It takes the mortgage crisis that precipitated the fallout and breaks it into small, digestible pieces that are easy to comprehend. Add some strong performances from A-list actors, creative flourishes and a few squirmy laughs and you have one of the best movies of 2015.
Based on Michael Lewis’ (he wrote Moneyball) nonfiction bestseller of the same name, the story focuses on three groups of individuals who see the meltdown looming, even though the mortgage industry was flourishing in the early-to-mid-2000s. In 2005, San Jose money manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale) looked where others weren’t looking and saw that adjustable rate mortgages were going to price regular folks out of their homes in a few years. Wall Street banker Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), enlists hot-headed hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his team so they can all make millions. Upstart money managers Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro) bring in former banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) for financial assistance and guidance. These three separate packs converge and rake it in.
They all utilize something called a credit default swap (essentially betting that the housing market will fail, or “short,” rather than continue to thrive), and when it all goes boom! and banks go bankrupt, they cash in by selling their holdings to independent buyers and make millions. It’s so smart, you’ll wish you’d seen it coming yourself.
The spectacular thing about the film is director Adam McKay’s ability to translate the technical gibberish of Wall Street jargon into laymen’s terms, which consequently allows the (presumably) unfamiliar audience — admit it, you don’t really get high finance — to understand the intricacies of the collapse. This understanding also prompts emotional investment in the characters, because we have a firm grasp of the millions of dollars at stake, which in turn further engages us and allows for a more fulfilling payoff.
For example, many will not know what a Collateralized Debt Obligation (CDO) is. So McKay, in one of the film’s inspired and surreal moments, has Chef/TV personality Anthony Bourdain explain CDOs in a brief cameo that will inform and amuse you. Cameo explanations from Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez have a similar effect, and add to McKay’s mastery of telling this story in a comprehensive, clear way. What’s more, the script by McKay and Charles Randolph (Love & Other Drugs) allows Gosling’s Jared to speak directly to the camera, breaking the fourth wall, including us in on the insight and perspective into this world. It’s an intelligent device that enhances the storytelling.
And yes, this is the same Adam McKay who directed Anchorman and Step Brothers. It’s not too far off the track for a comedy director to switch to drama (Austin Powers director Jay Roach recently helmed Trumbo, for example), and one could rightfully argue that it’s McKay’s comedic background that makes The Big Short so much fun. But the clarity and dramatic heft that The Big Short has is a substantial accomplishment and clearly the work of someone at the apex of his craft. He deserves a Best Director Oscar nomination. And Carell deserves the Academy Award for Best Actor, bar none.
And although the heroes win, this is ultimately a sad story. These financiers understand and are not happy about the institutional greed that led to the country’s (and world’s) financial downfall, so it is with a certain amount of guilt and disgust that they take their almost-filthy lucre. The Big Short is a bit preachy, certainly appalling and, worse than anything else, brutally, regretfully truthful. Let’s hope the errors of rampant avarice will not recur.