MOVIE REVIEW: The Big Short
"THE BIG SHORT"-- 5 STARS
Closing out 2015, you will find the most argumentative and ballsiest movie of the year hitting wide theatrical release over the Christmas holiday. No, it's not "The Hateful Eight." Quentin Tarantino can polish his ego somewhere else for three wasteful hours. The real film in question to bear those bold superlatives is "The Big Short." Headlined by a star-studded cast and directed by one of the most unlikely of sources, this legitimate must-see film tip-toes audaciously between biting satire and topical cautionary tale. You won't know whether to be pissed or be entertained and that's a powerful quality to pull off.
Adam McKay, the long-time go-to director for Will Ferrell comedy hits (the "Anchorman" series, "Step Brothers"), makes a big jump in clout and class with this adaption of "Moneyball" author Michael Lewis's 2010 best seller "The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine." The apocalyptic scenario being chronicled is the true tale of a few pockets of connected financial analysts and market players who saw the housing market collapse and financial crisis of 2007 and 2008 coming ahead of time and sought to either expose it or profit from it. Ryan Gosling's smooth-talking investor Jared Vennett (based on Deutsche Bank's Greg Lippmann) is the main of many fourth-wall-breaking narrators to guide us through this seedy underworld dressed up before us in luxury cars and tailored suits. "The Big Short" follows three main tangents.
It all starts in 2005 when neurotic and unorthodox Scion Capital hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale) runs across the numbers and trends that expose an upcoming instability of the subprime loan-based housing market. He deducts that he can profit from this possibility by creating a market based on future credit defaults. Essentially, he is betting against the housing market which, at the time, was as safe and ironclad of an institution in the history of the American economy. Playing this calculated hunch, Burry makes a combined $1.3 billion investment spread across several major Wall Street banks, who all happily take his money on something that has never failed.
The wind of this movement perks up the ears of Vennett at Deutsche Bank and he sees his place as the guy who can orchestrate others to buying into this market and make a killing himself. He gains the attention and partnership of the anti-establishment money manager Mark Baum, played by Steve Carell (and based on Steve Eisman), and his three-man team (Hamish Linklater, Rafe Spall, and Jeremy Strong) who make up FrontPoint LLC, a shingle of financial powerhouse Morgan Stanley. They collaborate to dig deeper and find further rating agency incompetencies towards collateralized debt connected to the housing market, all of which increases the potential severity of the market's possible failure.
The last thread belongs to a pair of enthusiastic small-time, self-made investors, Charlie Gellar (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), based on Cornwall Capital founders Charlie Ledley and James Mai. They stumble upon Burry's predictions and decide to act on them. Without the proper experience to pull off deals of this magnitude, the two enlist the help of wary, guarded, reclusive and retired banker Ben Rickert (played by co-producer Brad Pitt based on Ben Hockett) to endorse their trades and swaps.
Over the course of two years from Michael Burry's first moves in 2005 to the eventual implosion in 2007, everyone's breaking points are tested. Each of these character angles are tested and bombarded with losses, doubts, and heightened risks, thanks to heavy defensive pushback from the big banks and their own respective investors and superiors. Furthermore, all involved begin to see the overarching national and global ramifications of what might happen if they are right. They realize that the numbers they are crunching on spreadsheets constitute the homes, pensions, retirements, investments, and jobs of millions of ordinary Americans. Some don't care while others are disgusted and horrified.
With a stellar showmanship, "The Big Short" lays out all its cards and makes the complicated financial babble manageable. Gosling and company (including some surprise guests) walk the viewers through this unstable labyrinth with clever and detailed explanations presented in genial interludes spoken directly to the camera that keep you engaged and informed. McKay and his writing partner Charles Randolph spell out this sleazy riot with information and entertainment equally represented in brilliant fashion.
McKay's comedy roots serve him and his actors well. Ryan Gosling and Steve Carell lead an incredible ensemble that all sell their hypocritical gray area morals to the highest degrees. These characters move like protagonists, but none of them are heroes. No one is getting the "Ocean's 11" treatment. The profanity-laced zingers and tirades between them are passed like hot potatoes shot out of cannons.
Quite honestly, the truths being exposed are so unbelievable, one cannot help but laugh. McKay grasps that concept and runs with it while still being true to serious implications of Lewis's novel. "The Big Short" is a conspiracy theorist's dream. Big Brother opponents could put this film's poster on their off-the-grid walls the same way college-aged wannabe gangsters do with "Scarface." The scary thing is what we are bluntly laughing about isn't funny at all in reality. For "The Big Short" to compartmentalize all of that innate, magnetized, and frothy anger and spin it into a wildly entertaining yarn is quite a remarkable feat, an achievement that makes it one of the best films of 2015.
LESSON #1: CYNICISM VERSUS FAITH-- There are two duels going on at the core of "The Big Short." The first is between the overwhelming majority of cold cynics against the few optimistic people who, even while making money at the expense of others, had a positive faith in either the system or the people in power regulating it all to make sure it doesn't fail. Faith loses.
LESSON #2: VIRTUE VERSUS DECEIT-- The second moral battle at the center of this crisis was decency losing to fraud and immorality. Few people stood by the virtue of their integrity and honesty. All 99% of the businessmen you see cared about was making money and silver linings. Don't feel sorry for these entertaining characters. Find your rightful outrage instead. Feel sorry for the real and regular people who lost their homes, pensions, and jobs within this last decade because of the massive fraud perpetuated by these banks and businesses.
LESSON #3: CROOKS WILL STAY CROOKS-- It shouldn't take a movie to tell you that this whole shebang is a broken system where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. There will always be loopholes, instability, cheating, insider deals, golden parachutes, tax gaps, oversights, and wrist slaps instead of justice and prison sentences. Their money makes them powerful and sometimes pushes them above the law. The saying of "that's the way the world works" rings ugly and true.
LESSON #4: BE AN INFORMED CONSUMER AT EVERY LEVEL-- Separate the comedy from "The Big Short" and you have a cautionary tale that should inspire you to be smarter with your money and livelihood. Whether you're a home buyer or a grocery buyer, educate yourselves and don't be a sucker. Do your homework to buy things you can afford. Buy for need and not for want. Be your own expert instead of trusting people that call themselves experts that are only looking for their own gain.