The brilliance of The Big Short is that the movie knows it’s dealing with a complicated subject that not many people fully understand: the financial crisis of the late 2000s. It overcomes this obstacle by occasionally breaking the fourth wall with celebrities like Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez comparing complex banking concepts to everyday activities like cooking and gambling. Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) narrates the story and introduces these segments of infotainment.
The problem with The Big Short is that the movie deals with a complicated subject that not many people fully understand. Although it uses creative methods to make complex banking concepts accessible, it ultimately resorts to the simplification that the suits behind the bursting of the housing bubble are either clueless or criminal (or both). However, it takes a long time getting there. Each of the characters who sees it coming are slow to believe that the system can be so corrupt.
There wouldn’t be anything wrong with this approach if it were as simple as good guys vs. bad guys. However, is it not just as bad for someone to bet on the financial collapse as it is for someone to orchestrate it? Yes, those who see it coming can really stick it to the 1%, but their success means also sticking it to the other 99%. This moral ambiguity is best reflected in Mark Baum (Steve Carell), the owner of an investment fund who has a personal interest in seeing the big banks implode.
He’s approached by Vennett, who overhears the prediction of the impending implosion third-hand. It’s really another genius fund owner, Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale) who first sees it coming and starts the ball rolling for betting on the market to collapse. Vennett wants Baum to invest in… I don’t know, something that will net him huge profits when the shit hits the fan. He’s cautious about accepting the offer, and wants to investigate to see if there’s any truth to the possibility.
Baum and his team fly down to Florida to see all the homes for sale, talk to homeowners who are defaulting on their mortgages, and interview the scumbag brokers who are making a fortune off approving bad loans. Insert this year’s earlier movie about the crisis, 99 Homes, and it completes the picture of what exactly is happening at this time. This is the part of The Big Short that makes it all real for the average person. We relate to Baum as he realizes everything he’s been told is true.
We also relate to Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro), in the sense that they’re the closest the average person could come to profiting from the crisis. They’ve set up their fund in the garage and are such small potatoes that they have to ask disillusioned former Wall Street titan Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to make their moves for them. He claims to be done with trading, but finds it hard to ignore the potential windfall as a way to get a little revenge of his own.
With my reservations about the subject matter, I still must say that The Big Short is an entirely fascinating movie. It would be hilarious if it weren’t so tragic. Director Adam McKay (Anchorman) has written (with Charles Randolph) and delivered an improbably entertaining version of the book by Michael Lewis. I shouldn’t say “improbably;” the same thing happened with Lewis’s Moneyball. In this case, though, the names have been changed… to protect the guilty.