by David Robinson, Movie reviewer
“The Big Short” is a dark comedy about the onset of the 2007 collapse of the housing market and, consequently, the Great Recession. If you think that this is no laughing matter, well, the movie makers basically agree with you, as the downbeat ending demonstrates. There are no “heroes” here, just some canny survivors who saw the storm arriving and bailed out in time. Oh, and reaping millions in the process, while watching unemployment soar and retirement accounts, pension funds, and home values plummet.
One of the jolly reapers, Jared Vennet (played by Ryan Gosling), begins the movie by assuring the audience that he will be turning up later to explain things but not to expect a happy ending — the standard comic resolution. And director Adam McKay and fellow screenwriter Charles Randolph, adapting Michael Lewis’s best selling book, create a script with lots of wit but plenty of warnings that things are not going to turn out so well — as if we needed to be reminded. Like Lewis, the filmmakers attempt to unscramble the complex mess that nearly brought the American economy to its knees, at the same time that they entertain the audience.
In this daunting task, they mostly succeed, using subtitles, celebrity interviews, and conversations real and imagined to try to get at how the unthinkable occurred. One of the focal characters, an ex-doctor turned hedge fund manager named Michael Burry, is played with erratic brilliance by Oscar nominee Christian Bale. Another financial wise guy, Mark Baum (Steve Carrell), realizes that Burry’s predictions of imminent catastrophe are correct, as does retired bonds broker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt).
Along with Vennet and their (extremely) various associates, these men represent a sampling of the people who not only weathered the financial storm but made money off of it. Much of the film’s considerable energy is spent on trying to explain what they realized was a gigantic fraud perpetrated by some of the most respectable institutions: banks, ratings agencies, brokers, even the government. None of these titans acted with fiduciary responsibility for their clients’ interest, choosing instead to line their pockets and/or cover their butts.
Since everyone knows the unhappy outcome of this historical display of fear and greed, the tension of the story has to come from elsewhere. We watch as these skeptics are admonished, threatened, or shunned by those “knowledgable” souls who scorn their predictions, refusing to be confused by the hard statistical evidence that the housing market is actually a shaky scheme, a structure of building blocks which is flawed at the bottom and ready to topple.
When it does, and they are proved right, there is little joy among them. One of the smart guys, Rickert, forcibly reminds his younger associates that their profit derives from the misery of millions of others. A “happy ending,” in which all the malefactors are brought low and justice prevails is dismissed as a joke, reminding us of the actual outcome with which we are currently living.
“The Big Short” is “R” for pervasive (and realistic) profanity and some nudity. It helps if you have some notion of the financial markets, but even those in the know will likely get lost at some point. Which may be the point: the system was built to obfuscate, to conceal rather than inform or enlighten. .Underneath all the sometimes frantic editing shifts, cinematic tricks, and sleight of hand, the movie is deeply serious about the cost of chicanery at the highest levels which the lower levels wind up paying for.