If I had known Adam McKay was the idea man, writer and director behind Will Ferrell vehicles such as the Anchorman movies or Step Brothers or Talladega Nights, or even the writer of Ant-Man, I might have avoided The Big Short. I’m glad I saw it, not least because it covers similar territory as Margin Call. The Big Short is McKay’s first movie as a director without Ferrell, and maybe more serious than his previous work. It’s about the credit and housing finance collapse in 2007. Yes, it’s a comedy about greed, cluelessness, unemployment, financial ruin, indifference and death. It’s not flawless, but it’s witty and fast-paced, and it has an ensemble cast that speaks for itself.
It all starts with Dr Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a socially awkward, introverted systems analyst with his own company, a predilection for very loud heavy metal music and a nervous tic involving drumsticks. Burry is convinced that many financial tools, such as hedge funds and mortgage bonds, do not have sufficient, if any, cover behind them. The US housing market will collapse, he claims, because the big banks act fraudulently: they package bad shares and stock into re-named papers and let Standard & Poors and Moody’s give them the AAA rating. He stands alone with this. Everyone tells him that the housing market is rock-solid, the bedrock which U.S. economy stands on. In order to prove his theory mainly to himself, and to make a fortune, he goes to some Wall Street brokers and tells them he wants to create a new tool, a kind of insurance policy, in which he gets a huge payoff if the housing market collapses. The brokers laugh in his face, then ask him repeatedly if he is serious. They still laugh when they take his money and get to work.
Through a series of coincidences, Mark Baum (Steve Carrel), the angriest hedge fund manager in America, who is sort-of-but-not-really associated with Morgan Stanley, gets wind of Burry’s short bet. It helps that Baum is a pessimist of Nietzschean proportions, and he is finally convinced when Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), an employee of the Deutsche Bank, alerts them to the same scheme. Vennett is not very far away from Jordan Belfort, the megalomaniac from Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, although this flick is almost entirely drug-free. Vennett uses Jenga blocks to illustrate how big banks will put substandard shares into prime-rate hedge funds for so long until the whole market (or block) will collapse. Vennett also claims that he can smell money.
The movie seemingly explains everything, even things that not even the people in the movie can properly understand. If you prefer a documentary about the origins of the financial crisis, there is the very good Inside Job from 2010 as a companion piece to this film. Inside Job made me angry, while The Big Short made me laugh out loud several times. There is a scene where Vennett’s voice-over announces that Margot Robbie in a bubble bath will explain what a credit default substandard thingamijig is. Cut to Margot Robbie in a bubble bath, sipping champagne, explaining what a CDS is, her lecture sprinkled with expletives. There are two more scenes like this, one with Anthony Bourdain and a fish soup, the other with Selena Gomez at a blackjack table. McKay’s humour is only slightly crude on the surface; there is a point to the humour, and underneath it all is the spirit-crushing thought that you know that this has all happened and is still happening.
There is a third narrative strand involving two young hotshot hedge fund managers who want to convince stock trading legend Ben Rickert to help them get their Wall Street access papers. It’s Rickert (Brad Pitt) who is the moral centre of the movie, not least because he quit the business for its lack of ethics. When the two youngsters celebrate their success, Rickert is upset: “Do you know what you have done? An increase of 1% in unemployment means 40’000 deaths.” Gulp. Okay, that seems a lot, but even if the real number is only half of this, it’s still horrific to learn.
The movie does a lot of explaining because, like in Margin Call, the guys have to explain to each other what has happened, what is happening, and what is going to happen. Nobody has the big picture. Baum eventually finds out that he has placed short bets against his own bank Morgan Stanley. There are two weaknesses in this film: the first one is that it does drama badly. Mark Baum’s confession to his wife (Marisa Tomei) about why he is so angry all the time is handled awkwardly and not really gripping. The second problem is that the movie is 130 minutes long, which means a lot of talk and discussions and phone calls and meetings. Although Adam McKay is using the collapse of the fourth wall to his own great advantage, some scenes should have been cut.
Despite that, it’s a powerful movie, which is rare in a comedy. Everyone gets their hands dirty. Ben Rickert gets back into the game, and even Burry, who wants to prove that the banks are fraudulent, has to prove it by making a load of money. Yes, yes, yes, the banks were peddling crap to small-time investors who lost everything, but all of the guys involved in the big short saw an opportunity to get rich themselves while preaching that the big banks’ deals were faulty. Moral high ground? Come on. The movie knows all this. Burry, these days, deals in water. The Big Short is a horror film hidden in a comedy. Most other movies would become cynical over their message, but not this one. It is often sarcastic and seems to laugh at people and their greed, but it’s able to combine the comical with the tragic without letting down either.