Flip, furious and hilariously chilling, “The Big Short” is a comical primer on the global financial meltdown, as engineered by the “idiots” and “morons” of Wall Street, and the toadies who failed to rein them in.
It explains, in deliciously campy side vignettes, the how and what of all these acronyms and euphemistically-named “instruments” by those we sometimes to remember to focus our outrage upon.
Based on the Michael Lewis (“Moneyball”) book and script, it features a compact and pithy supporting performance by Brad Pitt and scintillating star turns by Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, and Steve Carell, as the loud-mouthed outsider-insider who fumed and fulminated about the “fraud” he saw taking over Wall Street — even as he was hedging his bets about how to cash in on the collapse he saw coming.
Gosling’s swaggering Jared Vennett narrates the story, taking us back to when banking and bankers were boring and middle class. Ancient history by the mid-2000s, when greed that led to bad practices and spread from suddenly richer and hipper Wall Street, down to Main Street, where any schmuck could stack up loans to load up on real-estate, all under the lax oversight of the George W. Bush administration.
Christian Bale briliantly interprets the eccentric genius fund manager Dr. Michael Burry, who first realized that banks were heavily into bad home mortgages, and got those banks to invent and sell him credit swaps that allowed them to insure against the apocalyptic mass default that he was sure was coming, allowing him to “bet short.” It doesn’t happen, they keep his premiums. It does, and he makes his reluctant –sometimes hostile — investors filthy rich. And the banks go bust.
Vennett was another bank employee in-the-know who peddled these credit swaps as a way to make money when the world was about to crash down around their ears.
Carell is Mark Baum, a rude rageaholic and fund manager who blows his fuse at every fresh proof that evil banks are screwing over working people and ignoring the time bomb that they’ve created with these subprime mortgages.
And Brad Pitt is the ex-broker who helps a couple of young Turks (John Magaro, Finn Wittrock) play with big boy money at the same credit swap game.
“Talladega Nights” director Adam McKay was an odd choice, but the right one, to turn Lewis’s anecdote-and-economics book into a film. Gosling’s Vennett pauses the picture, here and there, to get “Margot Robbie, in a tub of bubbles” or “Here’s world famous Chef Anthony Bourdain” in a kitchen full of spoiling fish, or Selena Gomez at the blackjack table, to explain this or that arcane bit of financial tomfoolery — what those acronyms that brought down other acronyms (AIG) and famed banks (Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, etc.) are. It’s flippant, but it works as a device.
Diatribes are cut-off, mid-sentence. Montages serve up a blizzard of context, a post 9/11 America that was too distracted by Barry Bonds cheating, Britney Spears melting down and assorted reality TV shows, to say nothing of assorted wars, to “pay attention” to high finance.
Characters are forever saying “How come nobody’s talking about this?” and “They call me ‘Chicken Little,’ they call me ‘Bubble Boy,'” for pointing out “THEIR stupidity” and fraud. Carell is best at this name calling, Gosling smirks and takes abuse because he knows he’s right. Bale bangs on drums and suffers, patiently, as he waits for the ratings agencies to admit the market has collapsed and thus make his lucrative prediction come true.
There are no heroes here. Nobody goes to the Feds or the press until the rigged system threatens to mask its meltdown and keep them from cashing in.
Thus, “The Big Short” becomes not just amusing and explanatory, a real tour de force for its fast-talking cast. It’s an election year caution flag. “Nobody is talking about this” applied then, when the end was in sight. And it applies now, when few of those who wrecked the world’s economy paid a price, and the lessons not learned seem to be re-inflating the bubble awaiting another handful of mavericks to see Doom and figure out a way to make it pay.
MPAA Rating:R for pervasive language and some sexuality/nudity
Cast: Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling, Marisa Tomei, Brad Pitt
Credits: Directed by Adam McKay, script by Michael Lewis and Adam McKay. A Paramount release.
Running time: 2:10