THE BIG SHORT (2015)
Directed by Adam McKay
Regency Entertainment, 130 minutes, R (language and brief nudity)
* * * * *
The Big Short was nominated for five Oscars, but only took home a statue for Best Adapted Screenplay. This has more to do with bad timing and willful forgetfulness than with the film's quality. By the time it hit the market, Inside Job (2010), Too Big to Fail (2011), and Margin Call (2011) had already probed the topic of the 2005 collapse of the housing market. Of those three, however, only the documentary Inside Job is The Big Short's equal. Watching The Big Short now on DVD is a potent reminder of why the real issue for 2016 election is whether the nation has the will to rein in Wall Street. If we don't, a future economic disaster is a matter of when, not if.
Writer/director Adam McKay's screenplay is a thinly veiled look at the fall of Lehman Brothers and of conventional thinking that "nobody loses money investing in housing." Yes they do–especially when amoral sleaze-meisters get to invent their own rules on how to defraud at will. The view of Wall Street from The Big Short is one that scarcely rises above definitions of treason, which makes it all the more galling that only one poor sap in Switzerland went to jail over any of it. And the fact that Wall Street is currently doing almost everything it did in 2005 makes one wonder why there's no hunting season on bankers and investors.
The only name The Big Short doesn't change is that of Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), the California-based autistic hedge fund manager who foresaw impending disaster and sounded an alarm to which few listened. Those who heeded his warning–Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), a Deutschebank trader (Greg Lippmann in real life); Ben Rickertt (Brad Pitt playing real-life Ben Hockett); Mark Baum/Steve Eisman (Steve Carrell); Charlie Geller/Ledley (John Magara); and Jamie Shipley/Mai (Finn Whittrock) "shorted" their housing investments; that is, they dumped them at what long-term investors thought was a bargain price. Those who shorted made some coin when the lid blew off of a shell game built upon unsustainable subprime mortgages and CDOs (Collateralized Debt Obligations), a credit swap deception in which bad loans are packaged with seemingly sound investments to make the entire bundle seem stable.
The Big Short is a surprisingly taut drama–a tribute to McKay's directorial skills given that we already know that Burry was right and we lived through the consequences. He tells a complex story that many viewers may find difficult to comprehend. After all, how many of us are familiar with Wall Street jargon such as CDO, quant, hedge fund, credit swap, or tranche? McKay suggests a lot of this is arcane for a reason: it's like Masonic mumbo-jumbo whose real purpose is to shield insiders from a regulatory gaze. In other words, if you really understood what they were doing, you'd buy the hunting license mentioned above. McKay does something very unconventional to demystify Wall Street—he infuses splashes of needed comic relief. Actress Margot Robbie soaks in a bubble bath and explains subprime loans and mortgage securities; chef Anthony Bourdain chops veggies and compares CDOs to stinky fish; Selena Gomez and behavioral psychologist Richard Thaler unravel Synthetic CDOs at a blackjack table. Some critics took McKay to task for cheap theatrics, but I see these as akin to the way Shakespeare inserted Falstaff into his Henry V tragedies: they give viewers a chance to collect their wits whilst indirectly being given a few puzzle pieces.
If you've not already seen The Big Short, do so before you cast your vote this fall. Don't worry if some of the intricacies go over your head; you'll learn enough to know that American taxpayers were taken to the cleaners by the breed of fraudsters the Chinese execute when they catch them. Pay attention to the film's coda–it's business as usual on Wall Street and that is not good news for those who live among the 99%. If it doesn't make you wonder why the two leading candidates are among the 1%, watch it again.