Directed by Adam McKay (“Anchorman,” “Step Brothers”), “The Big Short” is a comedy about credit default swaps, bursting housing bubbles and the financial meltdown of 2008. It not only makes the convoluted seem wholly accessible, it makes us root for guys who were betting on the downfall of their own country. (The movie opens in Manhattan on Dec. 11 and wide on Dec. 21.)
We’re talking about guys like Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), the one-eyed physician with Asperger’s who figured out very early on that mortgage-backed securities weren’t worth the paper they were printed on. Or money-manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell), who also sees that the country is headed toward an economic precipice, and that there’s nothing illegal about making a fortune while watching it head over the cliff.
Characters do suffer their crises of conscience — Baum, in particular — but one of the points of “The Big Short” is that nothing anyone did was illegal. Yes, it may have been suicidal. Or shamelessly self-aggrandizing. But it was a very high-stakes . . . game. Besides, those who saw the money to be made on others’ mistakes alerted the right people about the wrongs being done. Some, like the small-time traders Charlie Geller and Jamie Shipley (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock), even go to The Wall Street Journal, where they are shot down as unreliable alarmists.
Their consolation? They made millions.
“They didn’t do what they did for nefarious reasons,” said Magaro. “They were financial guys; it was what they knew. They wanted to expose this insane thing. Their heart was in the right place.”
Added Wittrock, “No one listened.”
And if someone had, the movie suggests, 2008 might be remembered for something other than the collapse of Wall Street, bailouts, obscene bonuses and our lingering sense of economic dread. Watching “The Big Short” is a little like watching a slow-motion car crash, albeit with a lot more laughs.
Some names have been changed in the process of adapting Michael Lewis’ best-seller of 2010 (“The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine”) into a very rare thing, a star-studded holiday movie about economic apocalypse. Brad Pitt, who appears as the reclusive ex-Wall Streeter Ben Rickert, produced the film with his Plan B colleagues Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner, and said their previous experience with Lewis on “Moneyball” — also based on a book of his — may have helped move their collaboration ahead.
“We bid on the book like everyone else,” Pitt said, “but we may have had a foot in the door with ‘Moneyball.’ But what’s great about Michael is, he’s able to lay out very complicated material, as he did with ‘Moneyball,’ and make it into a real thriller. You can see a movie in his writing.”
McKay agreed. “What I was blown away by was how entertaining it was,” he said. “It was about all this financial esoterica, but ultimately it was about characters. And it was so much fun.”
The fun includes McKay’s regular breaking of the fourth wall between characters and audience, especially when the plot, and fiduciary details, thicken beyond a normal person’s digestion: At one point, actress Margot Robbie is recruited to explain some particularly Talmudic aspect of high finance, while sitting in a bubble bath and sipping champagne. In another sequence, TV chef Anthony Bourdain explains collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), likening them to a restaurant turning yesterday’s unsold fish into tomorrow’s fish stew.
McKay also plays with movie genres — there’s no mistaking that the introductory camera work and narration provided by Ryan Gosling are meant as a take-off on “Goodfellas” (with the accompanying suggestion that the financial sector was engaged in organized crime). Gosling’s character, Jared Vennett, is another Wall Streeter with vision — the vision to see calamity on the horizon, as well as a need to divorce himself from his movie surroundings: “I never hung out with these people,” he says, during a scene in a nightclub. “I had fashion friends.”
Gosling laughs at the recollection: The real-life figure on whom Vennett is based made the very same objection. “He said, ‘I never hung out with those people,’ ” Gosling said. “I told him, ‘All I can do is say that.’ He said, ‘Yeah! Say that! Tell ’em I had fashion friends.’ ” They altered the scene accordingly.
There’s quite a bit of mischief afoot in “The Big Short,” quite a bit of righteous indignation, too. As he did in “12 Years a Slave” (another Plan B production), Pitt is the one who gets to deliver the moral summing-up, not about slavery in this case, but about capitalism, greed and a system too amoral to sustain itself.
“It wasn’t by design,” the actor said. “I just wanted to be part of it, and it made sense if I was going to comment on what was going on that it be like this. Besides, I’m still mad about what happened — just like a lot of people are mad about what happened.”
Lights! Camera! Recession!
Back in the ’30s, there were a lot of movies about the Depression, but not a lot of movies about what caused the Depression. One can’t say the same about the post-2008 cinema, which has seen an explosion in movies that try to explain what happened, why and how it can’t be allowed to happen again. But for all the fine work that documentarians did in the period just before and just after the Great Recession (including “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” “Inside Job,” and “Floored”) it sometimes takes a movie like “The Big Short” to explain what kind of world they live in and how it works. Here are some others that did just that:
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946) “You’re thinking of this place all wrong, as if I had the money back in a safe,” George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) explains to a group of desperate depositors in his teetering savings and loan. “The money’s not here. Your money’s in Joe’s house, that’s right next to yours, and in the Kennedy house and Mrs. Macklin’s house and a hundred others . . . you’re lending them the money to build and then they’re gonna pay it back as best they can. What are you going to do, foreclose on them?” A short, simplified explanation of what didn’t happen in the postwar Frank Capra classic, and what happened in the United States circa 2008.
ROLLOVER (1981) Directed by that master of the political thriller Alan J. Pakula (“All the President’s Men”) this was a truly frightening film for its era, one that revealed the potential calamity to be caused by currency manipulation and orchestrated chaos within the global economic order. Arabs — predictably, given the times — were the villains du jour; the stars included Kris Kristofferson, Jane Fonda and Hume Cronyn.
TRADING PLACES (1983) Raucous John Landis comedy imagines a modified “Prince and the Pauper” scenario in which the waspy Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd) switches lives with the street-wise hustler Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy). Hilarity ensues. But there’s also considerable instruction in Commodities 101, and wisdom to be gleaned from Billy Ray’s explanation to traders Duke and Duke (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche) why pork bellies futures are going down this Christmas.
MARGIN CALL (2011) J.C. (“All Is Lost”) Chandor’s debut feature stars Jeremy Irons, Kevin Spacey, Demi Moore, Mary McDonnell, Stanley Tucci, Paul Bettany and Zachary Quinto in a white-knuckle drama about 24 hours in the life of an investment bank, just at the beginning of the financial meltdown.
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013) Martin Scorsese, significantly, turned his gaze from the mob to the money boys for what is a rather flawed but morbidly fascinating account of Jordan Belford’s real-life rise into the muck of Wall Street, crime, corruption and the federal government.
— JOHN ANDERSON