It used to only be Max Bialystock, from Mel Brooks’s The Producers, who could see the potential for millions in a failure. In that film Bialystock decided there was much more to gain in a massive flop than in a big hit. It was math that made little sense, but because the entire premise rested on this notion, we went along with it. Sadly, the real-life housing crisis and crash of the big banks in 2008 proved that there was incredible wealth to be gained from failure…failure of the U.S. economy. While many Americans had their savings and pensions wiped away, their houses foreclosed and their lives forever changed, there was a handful of skillful, insightful financiers who saw a way – a legal way – to profit from all of the disaster. The Big Short (opening today) is a film about those who saw this crisis coming, and positioned themselves to profit once the bubble went boom.
The Big Short features an A-list ensemble, all playing slightly-bent versions of characters they’ve played before, save for Christian Bale who turns in the film’s best performance as a death-metal listening, drumstick wielding, super-nerd hedge-fund manager who sniffed out the crisis well before the rest of the country. Steve Carell is an eccentric Wall Streeter who sees an opportunity to stick it to the big banks. Ryan Gosling is a slick-talking bank trader. Finn Wittrock and John Magaro play two up-and-coming self-starters looking for a seat at the big-boy table.
Not unlike The Producers though, there is some crazy-complicated math needed to figure all of this out. The industry terminology, the know-how of markets and how finances work, may leave your head-spinning. The movie knows that it is presenting a very serious yet complicated topic, so really Adam McKay (Anchorman, The Other Guys), is the perfect maestro for this circus. The film is a comedy – a zany one at that – with winks to the camera and a strong sense of self-awareness. Betting on the fact that much of the details will be lost on the average viewer, the film deploys a device where well-known celebrities are brought in for cameos where they explain a simple financial term or concept, directly to the viewer. We are treated to Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez giving is info in this matter, as well as Margot Robbie in a hot tub. Who can’t focus with Margot Robbie in a hot tub explaining risky mortgages?
The fact that the film understands it is delivering a complex message is both its strength and its weakness. It makes banking terminology seem sexy and cool. It also is still quite impossible to really understand despite the film’s efforts to break it all down for the layman. Where The Wolves of Wall Street showed life inside the bubble, The Big Short views life just from the outskirts of the bubble. These “hyenas” laid in wait and waited for the fattened wolves to get careless before pouncing. There dilemma is an interesting one: Yes, they stand to get rich one the market crashes, but aren’t they playing the same game that got the fat cats rich in the first place? More appalling, is that there were millions of victims in America who suffered greatly, despite the fact that there were some who saw this trouble coming way down the pike. It speaks to the greed of these banks and their minions that they could care less about any of this, too selfish to see the forest for the trees.
All of this is hard to swallow, let along find humor in. The Big Short works as an engaging – enraging – film, but your lasting memories of it will probably be of Margot Robbie, which may or may not have been the film’s intention.
Genre: Biography, Drama, Comedy
Run Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Marisa Tomei, Hamish Linklater, Jeremy Strong, John Magaro, Brad Pitt, Melissa Leo, Finn Wittrock
Based on the book by Michael Lewis
Directed by Adam McKay (Step Brothers, Anchorman, Anchorman 2, The Other Guys)
Opens locally on Wednesday, Dec 23, 2015 (check for show times).