Cheerfully bouncing around a number of traders who perceived an imminent financial disaster in advance, “The Big Short” gives us an absurd, biting account of how everything was virtually destined to be collapsed before the financial crisis of 2007-08 finally occurred in US. Watching how its main characters cleverly take advantage of the serious faults of their corrupt system, we cannot help but amused by how many others in the system are so oblivious to the approaching disaster on the horizon as driven by greed and stupidity, and then we are chilled by its enormous following economic consequences, which have been affecting not only US but also the whole global world.
In 2005 March, Michael Burry (Christian Bale), an ex-neurologist who has worked as the manager of a hedge fund company in California thanks to his deep interest and knowledge on financial business, thoroughly analyzes the current status of the US housing market, and he soon discovers that there is a really serious problem which will be far worse two years later according to his estimation. As explained during the prologue sequence, the introduction of mortgage-backed security (MBS) led to a new exciting financial business area for banks, and things looked fine and profitable for years as banks continued to sell MBS and other similar kinds of security, but now it is on the verge of collapse as it has depended more and more on high-risk subprime mortgages, which are inherently no more than worthless financial toxic waste.
This is surely a bad news, but Burry also finds an ironic silver lining in this gloomy prospect. Through credit default swap, which is technically financial insurance, he can bet against, or ‘short’ in financial business term, the market, and then he and his clients will profit a lot from that if the market is collapsed as he predicts. Thanks to his autonomous position in his company, he can go to New York by himself and make deals with several prominent investment banks including Deutsche Bank and Goldman Sachs, and the banks have no trouble with accepting Burry’s business proposal, mainly because they do not see any problem from the market unlike him and, above all, they are happy to get another opportunity of getting free money for them.
In the meantime, some other few people also begin to discern what Burry sees from the market. After informed about one of Burry’s bank deals by coincidence, Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), a slick, confident trader working in Deutsche Bank, immediately realizes that there is indeed a big opportunity not many people have noticed yet. When a group of hedge fund managers led by Mark Baum (Steve Carell) come to learn about that through a misplaced call, Vennett makes a proposition to them, and, though they do not entirely trust him, they come to join Vennett’s private venture because they see a chance of working against the system they have disliked.
We also meet Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), two young amateur traders eager to get any breakthrough to push their modest business into the major league in New York. When they happen to come upon Vennett’s prospectus on one day, they cannot be possibly more excited about what it suggests, but, due to their lack of experiences in security trade, they need some help from a more experienced guy. When they call him for help, former trader Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) reluctantly comes out of retirement to return to his old game, and Geller and Shipley soon come to learn and experience a lot under their mentor’s guidance while getting closer to their dream of getting richer.
Busily juggling all these elements along with many other things in the story, the screenplay by the director Adam McKay and his co-writer Charles Randolph, which is based on Michael Lewis’s nonfiction book “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine”, keeps engaging us through its brisk, efficient narrative peppered with humor and intelligence. As giving amusing and informative interlude lectures at times for our basic understanding of financial business, the movie never loses its way amidst myriad details popping up here and there around the plot, and it trusts us enough to let us grasp the ongoing circumstances on the screen for ourselves. Although those tricky financial business terms such as collateralized debt obligation (CDO) are frequently mentioned in the film, we always get the clear idea of what is going on around its characters, and we are constantly involved in their business interactions.
Like the funniest moments of McKay’s debut film “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” (2004) are based on the absurdities of real human behaviors, many hilarious moments in “The Big Short” come from its sharp, acerbic observation on the absurd human faults behind the financial crisis of 2007-8. As some of the main characters in the film look closer into the sobering reality of the US housing and financial markets, they cannot believe their eyes while realizing how the system is more rotten than they have ever imagined, and we get dark, bitter laughs while observing its virulent aspects along with them. Loan brokers are willing to allow anyone to get house loans regardless of their customers’ ability to pay back their mortgages, banks are glad to have more commodities to be packaged and then sold, credit rating agencies have no problem with giving higher credit ratings for their client banks which incidentally pay them for their rating services, and, as reflected by one brief scene, US Securities and Exchange Commission do not care about these fraudulent activities while indirectly associated with Wall Street financial companies. After all, nobody wants to ruin the fun as long as money keeps rolling into their hands, and one of the most pungent laughs in the film comes from how much they are willing to keep disregarding the immediate failure of their system even when it is pretty obvious right on the surface.
The movie also makes hard points as its main characters become more conscious of what is bound to happen sooner or later. While they are simply dealing with numbers in their financial plays, those numbers are going to devastate the life of millions of common people out there once all hell breaks loose, and there is one sad scene involved with a struggling poor family who will be one of countless victims of the US housing market collapse. When things begin to fall apart in the end around 2007, that dreadful sense of doom feels more palpable than ever to our trader heroes, and some of them are not very comfortable with the fact that they are going to benefit from this unprecedented financial crisis which shakes hard everyone around them. They naturally feel conflicted as watching its widening effects on the national economy as well as the global economy, but they also cannot let themselves go down like many others – especially when they have a very good option for their survival right in front of them.
While many of real-life people in Lewis’s nonfiction book are presented through their fictional counterparts with changed names, the characters in the film are imbued with vivid, distinguishable personalities, and the talented cast members of the film smoothly inhabit their respective roles. Christian Bale, who is recently Oscar-nominated for his good performance (the movie is also nominated in four other categories including Best Picture), is dependable as a brilliant but socially awkward man who adamantly sticks to his belief and principles despite the mounting pressure from his angry boss and investors who do not believe his dour prediction on the market, and I personally appreciated how well Bale embodies those notable behavioral patterns of Asperger’s syndrome glimpsed from his eccentric character. Ryan Gosling’s easy-going charm is countered well by Steve Carell’s intense presence, and Carell deftly moves back and forth between comedy and drama as his character reveals personal conflicts behind his righteous anger toward the system he and his colleagues belong to. In his humble supporting performance, Brad Pitt, who also participated in the production of the film, effectively complements his two younger co-actors John Magaro and Finn Wittrock, and several notable performers including Hamish Linklater, Rafe Spall, Jeremy Strong, Adepero Oduye, Marisa Tomei, Melissa Leo, Karen Gillan, and Tracy Letts are also solid as the minor supporting characters in the film while Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain, Selena Gomez, and Richard Thaler have each own little fun during their short cameo appearances.
There have been several good films and documentaries about the financial crisis of 2007-8 during recent years, and “The Big Short” is as scathing as “Inside Job” (2010) and “Margin Call” (2011) in its comic criticism against those dirty rotten Wall Street guys who were responsible for the crisis. While nearly all of them did not go to jail, they also got lots of bailout money from the US government for covering up their big mess (guess where that money came from), and, as told to us at the end of the film, their business is being continued as before without any serious reform in the system. Seriously, do they ever learn?