If understanding the economy is a good thing, then director Adam McKay’s new film The Big Short is something every American should see. Often, such films are like broccoli: good for you but difficult to get down. Meanwhile, Hollywood blockbusters are like the salty, artifically-buttery popcorn they sell; tasty but not satisfying as a steady diet. The Big Short avoids either extreme. It’s red meat, in a world in which red meat is actually good for you.
McKay, along with co-writer Charles Randolph, has made this a thoroughly entertaining film. His grand subject, based on the bestselling book by Michael Lewis, is what’s been happening on Wall Street for the last fifteen or twenty years but reached a major crisis in 2008. What McKay and Lewis understand so well is that Wall Street has made relatively simple ideas as obscure as possible… deliberately, so that the in crowd can keep ripping off everyone else. Only when we realize what was really going on can we understand how much of it was just plain fraud.
Pursuing a strategy that’s informative, if sometimes distracting, the film cuts away from the principal cast to show us a starlet like Margot Robbie or a chef like Anthony Bourdain, explaining complex ideas such as derivatives. All using simple metaphors.
These sequences—and you have to admit, they beat sitting in an Economics classroom—are brief and only periodically disrupt the main story. That story, rendered in an ensemble piece, features some of today’s better film actors in delicious, idiosyncratic parts.
There’s Steve Carrel as a hedge-fund manager at odds with the rest of the human race, and Christian Bale as a genius financial analyst who marches to the beat of his own strange drummer. Both of these roles are played as high-functioning autistic personalities, which makes sense if you think about it. All the “normal” people were so busy eating each other’s dog food they never noticed, until it was too late, that what they were eating was much closer to dog poop.
When the normal people fail us, the abnormal get going.
Ryan Gosling, on the other hand, plays a character not far from his usual persona: slick, articulate, well dressed, sharper-than-you. His winking and turning to the camera give us the delight (as Michael Caine did way back in Alfie) of getting in on his schemes. Finally, Brad Pitt plays a sometime major-league bond trader who goes along with the ideas of the other “big short” players (the people smart enough to bet against the mortgage-bond market) but in the end acts as a moral conscience and voice of reason.
There’s an incongruence, however. The people we’re supposed to root for in this film are the geniuses who saw the burst of the housing bubble coming… and bet against the American economy. Somehow these guys emerge as morally superior in the second half of the film. Because of the positions they’ve taken, it’s in their interest for bonds to fall in price once the underlying mortgage debts go into default. And yet, for a long time, the bonds only go up. Now the audience is in the same position as the “big shorters,” asking, “What gives?” You want to say to the whole financial industry: “Wake up!” Against all reason and logic, the price of mortgage-backed bonds continue to soar higher and higher, even after a blind man could see that it was all on the verge of crumbling down.
What was happening—what does happen in the film—should make you angry even though the rest, as they say, is history. The big investment banks, finally realizing they were sitting on billions of dollars of garbage, began selling it as fast as they could to a trusting public while convincing bond-rating agencies to keep giving out the highest possible ratings. Realizing they had nothing but dogshit to sell, they used all their skills to talk their customers into buying it… often while betting against the market on the side. This massive defrauding of the public, along with the bailout that came later, enabled all but a few banks to sail through the crisis with their private jets, club memberships, and yachts largely intact.
Steve Carrell’s character—who in the end seems more concerned about the economy than enriching himself—emerges as the conscience of this film along with Pitt’s character. When I heard his character say, “The banks will be bailed out, no one will be jailed or fired, and after a few years the politicians will blame it on the immigrants and poor people,” I got a little chill in my back.
Because it’s all come true, hasn’t it? Blame the immigrants, not the liars on Wall Street. And don’t bother the man behind the curtain.