Film Review: The Big Short

This often hilarious and perfectly cast take on the 2008 housing bubble burst is already generating audience want-to-see and awards attention for the actors who play the savvy short-sellers who bet against Wall Street.
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There’s no need to bring calculators to theatres to figure out The Big Short, but as with favorite college courses, it’s best to go in a little prepared. Fastening belts for this flashy, thrilling ride into financial arcana and industry and government legerdemain (to be kind) from co-writer/director Adam McKay (Anchorman, Talladega Nights) requires a bit of homework.

This “Gaming the Housing Market” course and cheat sheet for students, oops, viewers might comprise definitions and clarification for terms and schemes that figure prominently. These include CDOs (collateralized debt obligations, “collateralized” sort of meaning the debts are supposedly guaranteed via assets), tranches (layers of sub-prime AAA down to real risky BB loans or mortgages underlying the CDOs), “extrapolation bias” (a dark relative of denial, it’s the often thick-headed tendency to assume that something, usually nice, is going to continue), and the credit default swap, which was the new instrument one of the short-sellers invented so that bets could be made against Wall Street and the booming housing market it was so successfully pushing.

Perhaps the most important term for the cheat sheet is “short-seller,” an investor betting that an investment or instrument will fail. The Big Short, moving fast and furious like a cinematic pinball machine, gives us a lot of characters and incidents but catches its breath to follow a handful of these short-seller quasi-heroes.

These were the few rebellious smarties who bet big against the housing market which was thriving in the early years of the century until it went down the toilet in 2008 and occasioned the global financial crisis and awful consequences for the 99%. The big problem was that the lending was undiscriminating (The film, via some research of one of the short-sellers, gives us a Florida stripper who owns mortgages on five homes and a condo.)

As if the seductive real-life plot from Michael Lewis’ well-researched best-seller isn’t enough, it’s the film’s tranche of great AAA casting and performances and on-the-money writing and directing that make The Big Short worthy of an investment of time and money and the promise of big returns (assuming Paramount has a savvy release/marketing strategy in place).

The major players here (and far from conventional movie heroes) are the outsider short-sellers who, mostly operating independently, catch on early and make big Wall Street bets that the housing market will crater. There’s the eccentric Michael Burry (Christian Bale) a tic-ridden San José doctor-turned-investor and hedge-fund manager with manias for metal music, slamming drums, going barefoot, making money and just plain winning. He’s the short-seller who came up with the credit default swap concept so that the housing investments fueling the crisis he foresaw could be “shorted.” He reminds of a young Steve Jobs and it’s not just that his loose t-shirts look like they need washing.

Another player who sensed the economic storm looming was young Deutsche Bank hotshot Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who got wind of Burry’s short-selling strategy. Apparently covering his backside at his big investment bank, Vennett lures neurotic, moralistic, hard-driving hedge-fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) into investing in a swap. With his team, Baum does some research on housing in Florida where, homes being abandoned, it is already showing signs of collapse.

On another front are two money-manager newbies from Colorado, Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro), who also early on spot the growing housing bubble. But because their fund doesn’t have the required capital to “short” the way they want to, they bring on the far more experienced and wealthy former investment banker-turned-environmentalist Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to help them bet against the Street.

The film has some cool gimmicks to clarify its knotty subject. Gosling’s Vennett serves as occasional narrator and sometimes addresses the camera to bring things home. Also to this end, there are some hilarious celeb cameo asides like Anthony Bourdain in top-chef gear explaining how the recycling into stew of a restaurant’s leftover Friday fish supply is analogous to the bundling of junk housing loans.

Collateral reading, er, viewing for The Big Short might include the doc Inside Job, Margin Call and The Wolf of Wall Street. Much like the nasty, greed-driven Wolf, The Big Short is a hormonal blast of machismo, bad behavior, sexy ladies, and Wall Street trickery that is so massive that even watchdogs like government agencies and the big ratings companies are party to the mega-scam. Playing Georgia, an uncooperative robot and bank ally for rating agency Standard & Poor’s whom Carell grills in his research, is Melissa Leo, so fine an actor but given too little to do here.

Meanwhile, heaps of awards attention will be lavished on the very deserving Bale, Gosling and Carell. And why not McKay, who shows that very funny can also be very intelligent and edifying?

Click here for cast and crew information.