This drama-comedy retells the events leading to the collapse of the US housing market from the perspective of 3 groups who were all betting on it to happen. This is a dramatic adaptation based on the non-fiction book by Michael Lewis (author of The Blind Side and Moneyball).
Eccentric hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale) realizes that the US housing market is unstable and predicts that things will start to fall apart in 2007. The movie does to great lengths to explain how he came to this conclusion. Using lots of narration, analogies and Margot Robbie in a bubble bath, the movie tries to explain that the housing market was based on packages of mortgages. The two primary entities in question are Market Based Securities (MBS) and Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDO) The problem was that no one seemed to realize that most of the mortgages in those packages where bad. Burry came up with a plan to make money on this by having banks create credit default swaps that would allow him to essentially bet against the housing market. When the market collapses, in the form of these mortgage securities being devalued, his swaps would pay out. Initially, it seemed like he was just throwing away money and word got out around town about the guy who was betting on something that never happened before.
Investor Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) gets wind of Murray’s plans and, after realizing that Burry’s predictions are true, gets in on the swaps. A misplaced call puts Vennett in contact with the surly trader, Mark Baum (Steve Carell) who is told about the scenario by Vennett. Initially, Baum can’t believe that what he’s hearing could actually be true but, after he and his associates research the mortgages in a particular security, they are shocked to find out that the housing bubble is real. The last group to get in are a pair of young investors, Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock). They decide to get in on the swaps as well, but need the help of their friend Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), who was a Wall Street player before withdrawing from the financial game all together. Each group of investors does their own research, which serves to highlight the almost criminal incompetence and negligence that characterized the housing market around that time. The more and more evidence that these characters see, the more encouraged they are to continue to put money into the swaps, and the banks are glad to take their money.
As events continue, all the involved parties take a beating from people who believe that they are investing in fool’s gold. Things take a turn for the worst for most of them when 2007 hits. More and more mortgages start to go into default, but the ratings of the securities stay the same, which means that their value doesn’t change. It is revealed that a big part of the reason for this is that the companies who rate the securities are paid for their services by the banks. For fear of losing the bank’s business the rating agencies continue to rate the securities higher than they should. As things get worse, the banks start to unload their mortgage securities while, at the same time, trying to buy up all the swaps that they can. Once the banks become firmly invested in the swaps, they start to value things correctly, allowing the early investors to make their money.
This is when everyone from the outside starts to realize that something is wrong with the system. The question is whether the problem is incompetence or fraud. By the end the three groups of investors all feel like the answer is fraud. They all get rich off the swaps that they bought but most of them are left incredibly distraught and disillusioned by what they’ve seen happen to the US economy. Most are sure that someone would be held accountable for the fraudulent behavior but they are shocked to find out that not only is no one held accountable, but that the American public ends up footing the bill for the whole fiasco.
My thesis statement about this movie would be that it’s much funnier and much more touching than a movie that’s about the collapse of the US economy based on the mismanagement of mortgage based securities, should ever expect to be. This was a very interesting movie to watch and I was impressed that it was as entertaining as it was. The director Adam McKay is mostly known for comedies (Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, The Other Guys) and this is a subject matter that is exceedingly dry. McKay does a great job of making the movie play like an ensemble comedy with the actual comedy coming from the characters and their interactions instead of the material. There were also some great methods of presenting the all of the dry information that was necessary for the viewer to really grasp what was going on. The cutaways to Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez where informative, but also great as a joke just to include in the movie. Then there were some individual scenes from actors like Karen Gillan, Max Greenfield and others that really succeeded in being funny and adding, or expounding on, other dimensions of the story.
With the characters in this movie either being real people or being loosely based on real people, they couldn’t be as over the top as characters from a movie like Anchorman. Even so, there are some characters with very big personalities. I loved Steve Carell’s Mark Baum and his team of traders that prided themselves in not taking any BS from anyone. In particular the character of Vinny Daniel (Jeremy Strong) was a personal favorite. There was a scene with all of them screaming an almost unintelligible string of complaints and obsceniteis at Ryan Gosling’s character that ended with someone saying, “I think I pulled a muscle from yelling so much”, that I thought really epitomized the kind of comedy this movie presents. It wasn’t that the situation was funny, it was actually terrible, it was that the characters interactions actually made the situation seem funnier.
What I really didn’t expect from this movie was the emotional chords that it would strike. When I left, I actually found myself with a feeling of despair and a kind of sadness. It was the feelings that were very prevalent in the characters as they basically watched the world crumble around them. I’m sure part of that is that I’m old enough to realize that the terrible system that’s depicted in the movie (albeit, not 100% accurately) is still very much in place today. However, I think a big part of it was watching Steve Carell and Christian Bale’s characters go through the process of realizing just how broken the system was and not being able to do anything as they watch Rome burn around them. Yes, they did end up making a lot of money (billions of dollars) from their deals, but it the emotional toll that the process took on them hardly made it seem worth it. As much credit as Steve Carell is getting for his performance in this movie, I thought that Christian Bale’s portrayal of Michael Burry (who seems to have Asperger’s or some other form of autism) was really the more powerful performance, on top of being the center of the movie. Ryan Gosling was also notable as his performance as a charismatic investor had to bounce between being a character and a host/narrator for the audience.
Everything in the movie works very well. It manages to be informative, funny and touching all at once. Because it is a fictional work based on non-fiction, I don’t know how much of it should be taken as absolutely true, but it’s a great educational gateway for people like me who were aware of the economic collapse but might not have necessarily known what was going on.
The Big Short (2015)
- Funny characters propping up a not-so-funny story
- Creative methods that are good at informing the audience on a complex subject
- Surprisingly, emotionally touching
- Great cast of supporting actors
- There is a lot of information to take in if you're unfamiliar with finances and the economy
- The movie tries to shoehorn in some character background for Mark Baum that feels like it doesn't really fit