It’s always pleasant when a filmmaker you previously had limited faith in manages to suddenly impress you. Adam McKay has always been associated with comedies, but they’ve usually ranged from uneven (Anchorman) to outright terrible (Tammy). In his latest, The Big Short, he’s made a bona fide good movie, a post-modern screwball take on the 2008 financial crisis that supports deadly serious subject matter with a comedic framework that’s integral instead of extraneous. It plays out a bit like one of those high-end conmen movies like Ocean’s Eleven – all controlled chaos, lightning montages, big stars and zinging one-liners. Only this time, it’s a real-life con and the saps getting ripped off are America’s (and the world’s) 99 percent.
The film, adapted pretty faithfully from Michael Lewis’ non-fiction examination of the crisis, follows an astute group of investors who saw the housing bubble for the fraud it was and anticipated the imminent crash before anyone else did. It’s a colorful cast of characters, featuring some of Hollywood’s biggest stars in composite roles drawn from the book. They include Christian Bale as an investing savant who nearly bankrupts his hedge fund betting that the housing market will crash; Steve Carell as a morally conflicted money manager; and Ryan Gosling as a sharklike Wall Street trader whose Deutsche Bank co-workers won’t appreciate his iconoclastic vision of financial apocalypse. One of the cleverest aspects of this sneak attack of a film is its own narrative con: the fact that we are, through engaging performances and writing, convinced to root for a group of people who are betting on global economic collapse. It’s not a collapse they caused but one they were willing to profit off of, over the shattered lives of millions of people (many of us included) who lost jobs, money, opportunities. We’re the saps twice over, divested of hard-earned money and then lulled into identifying with some of those who profited from it. There could be no more ironically suited object lesson in the voracious criminal enterprise that is 21st century finance.
The film, which features a colourful cast of characters, adapted pretty faithfully from Michael Lewis’ non-fiction examination of the crisis, follows an astute group of investors who saw the housing bubble for the fraud it was and anticipated the imminent crash before anyone else did.
Of the group, only Carell’s Mark Baum and Ben Rickert, a retired trader played with gruff seriousness by Brad Pitt, appear to feel at all bad about the impending disaster. While Gosling’s slickster is our amoral guide through the deliberately opaque terminology and social landscape of banking and finance, Baum and Rickert are the film’s conscience. Rickert, long resigned to the realities of the market, is busy developing sustainable food sources, coming out of retirement to help a pair of young wannabe big boys get their big break. When they get that break and celebrate like twenty-something newly-minted millionaires are wont to do, he has one barked order for them: “Don’t dance.” Baum too is seasoned in his own way but, as he and his team discover the extent of the systemic fraud that was the sub-prime mortgage market, fully enabled by the ratings agencies and regulatory bodies, his horror becomes increasingly palpable. Carell’s is the most compelling performance of the bunch, not least because he’s the only one with any kind of character arc. Married to his work after a personal tragedy, he wrestles with the pros and cons of investing in the lost futures of other people and howls in futile fashion into the moral void of the industry he has such a love/hate relationship with. The road he takes will likely not surprise the audience but it is, at least, a tortured route. The best we can really expect, apparently, is that a few of those making off with the world’s money will feel a little bit bad while doing so.
Another selling point is the fact that this is one of the more effective yet accessible explanations of the financial crisis I’ve come across. The sad truth of the matter is that few people will read a considered long-form analysis of the events that led to it or even watch a serious two-hour documentary about it. As Gosling’s character points out, even those of us who hold forth on the issue end up leaning on a few buzzwords we barely understand. Thing is, people might watch a picture starring Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell and Christian Bale, directed by the guy who made all those Will Ferrell movies. And if they do, they’ll get explanations from Margot Robbie in a bathtub (one of the film’s many meta flourishes) of collateralized debt obligations and other made-up financial instruments that served as the safecrackers for this industry of looters. What they’ll also get is a righteous dose of fury and indignation; from filmmakers offended not just by the sheer criminality and scale of collusion that led to economic downfall but by the attitudes of most of those involved. In one of the film’s most affecting sequences, Baum and his team explore a vacant Florida housing tract full of McMansions its poor former inhabitants were forced to default on. Afterwards, they meet with the uber-materialist finance bros who tell stories about the big commissions they collect on housing loans they know will never get paid back. “They’re not confessing,” observes one of Baum’s crew. “They’re bragging.”