in Review

The Big Short

You might have forgotten that The Other Guys was as much about the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, Goldman Sachs, AIG, and the financial crisis as it was The Rock jumping off a building. But if you remembered that, maybe you’re not surprised that when Adam McKay decided to try making a movie without Will Ferrell, he went back to the madness that was 2008. It’s clearly something he’s passionate about. The question is: why aren’t more of us?

The Big Short tells the story of three groups of people that were able to make enormous profits directly from the financial crisis. Not just at the same time, but by actually betting the American economy will fail. That’s a thing you can do, apparently, bet everything will fall apart and make a fortune. What’s even more troubling is that these characters are clearly the heroes, as they foresee the problems that Wall Street created, the government turned a blind eye to, and most of us gleefully embraced.

Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is the first to realize the precarious nature of the housing market, he starts steering his hedge fund into it, against pretty much everyone’s wishes. News of this reaches Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who does his own research and comes to the same conclusion. He teams up with another hedge fund, this one run by Mark Baum (Steve Carell), unable to resist a chance at being right and being rich. Lastly there are a couple of eager young investors played by John Magaro and Finn Wittrock who are trying to make a name for themselves by betting on the bad outcomes most people hope won’t happen. Those two team up with the retired Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) and get started on making some real money.

While not technically a comedy (although it would probably qualify by Golden Globe rules), The Big Short is still an Adam McKay movie and thus still highly entertaining. A lot of the movie is these hedge fund guys meeting with bankers and then just being absolutely shocked and appalled about not only what the banks are getting away with, but with how profoundly shitty these people are. Max Greenfield shows up to play a broker who doesn’t have any idea what he’s doing, but is making a pretty penny selling real estate to recent immigrants and strippers, for example. And when dry concepts need to be explained, McKay finds… compelling… ways to make you pay attention.

The one thing that I worry about in The Big Short is it’s pretty intense focus on vilifying the banks. Not that the banks aren’t villains, everything that happened is their fault and they were and are full of people that are super easy to righteously hate. But they got away with it by taking advantage of the government (with aggressive lobbying) and the American public (by praying on our narcissism and ignorance). Deeper than that, even, is the idea of never-ending greed, the constant desire that plagues so many of us, which McKay dares not really touch on at all. After all the main characters are all trying to make money too, and so is Paramount, the big, giant company that paid for this movie.

With the recent hullabaloo about the gargantuan lottery winnings, it’s important to remember that for a lot of people, the American dream will always just be a dream. The Big Short is about one of the biggest bets in history, one made by people who were already for the most part well off. There is no real rags to riches story here, and there’s hardly even a riches to rags aspect. Wall Street and wealthy people, as always, live in a different world than the rest of us. The real lesson of The Big Short is that nobody paid for creating the biggest economic downturn of our lifetimes. A few people got rich, everyone else got bailed out. Seriously, nobody paid. Except for us, if you didn’t notice.