This week's Odeon Screen Unseen offering turned out to be The Big Short, Adam McKay's subprime mortgage tragicomedy based on Michael Lewis's non-fiction book of the same name. I read the book soon after it came out in 2010 and although I enjoyed its account of the people who saw the economic crisis coming, it wasn't as engaging or straightforward as some of his other works. Hey, credit-default swaps are complicated.
Because I was familiar with the source material, I had some idea of what to expect from the film adaptation, although I was curious to see it as a comedy. The trailer suggests it's a chortle-a-minute buddy comedy, but it's cleverer and subtler than that, although it took a good 20 minutes for me to really get into it. The film opens as though it's a documentary or, at least, a mockumentary, with video clips demonstrating America's greed and hubris while an as yet unseen narrator offers doom-filled commentary. I was worried it was going to be a funnier, less sanctimonious version of Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story, which was the London Film Festival Surprise Film a few years back. Fortunately, the stellar ensemble cast and the sharp, knowing script by Charles Randolph make The Big Short much more enjoyable.
Like the book, the movie focuses on the lives of a few people who predicted the credit crisis and housing bubble back in the mid-2000s and attempt to profit from it. Most of the names have been changed and in the movie, they are all men. Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is a neurologist turned hedge fund manager who shuns shoes, listens to heavy metal at work and who "just know[s] how to read numbers". Then there's trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who infers what is happening after he hears an investment banker boasting about a trade with Burry. Mark Baum (Steve Carell) is a forthright hedge-fund manager with a mission and something of a conscience. Finally, Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro), are two bright young things who run a hedge fund out of their garage in Colorado and who persuade retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to help them profit from Burry's great idea.
And what is his idea exactly? It's to bet against, or short, the housing market. The investment banks he visits thinks he is stupid or crazy and gleefully allow him to sink hundreds of millions of dollars into his plan. If he's right, he and the few other people following the same strategy stand to make a huge profit, but it will also mean that millions of Americans risk losing their homes and/or their jobs as the country's economy spirals into freefall.
While you are watching The Big Short, these guys — especially Baum and his team — feel a bit like heroes — crusaders, searching for the truth. As they try to understand the ridiculousness of the situation, they meet people who are about to lose their homes and real estate agents who used to be bartenders but now own boats as a result of selling multiple subprime mortgages to people who won't be able to make the repayments once the interest rates are hiked way up. The realtors tell Baum everything — he realises that "they aren't confessing, they're bragging". But the scale of the dishonesty and fraud within the industry is so great that Baum senses an imminent economic collapse.
This is a story that has been told before but an important one and McKay's film is interesting several ways. First, the central characters aren't really heroes — they happened upon the impending crisis while trying to make money for their clients and for themselves and don't want to miss out on this huge profit opportunity. They are portrayed as cleverer, more perceptive and more altruistic than the rest of the banking industry, for sure, but that isn't saying very much. Baum is certainly the most conflicted character — forever jumping on his soapbox and seemingly less motivated by greed than by doing the right thing, but then there is Vennett whose favourite phrase is, "I smell money."
Second, McKay's tongue is firmly wedged inside his cheek. He knows that a 2h10 film about credit-default swaps and synthetic collateralised debt obligations (CDOs) is going to send its audience to sleep in seconds, so his characters briefly describe the concepts, followed by a campy celebrity cameo. You might not remember a definition of a synthetic CDO but you will surely remember Selena Gomez playing poker with behavioural economist Richard Thaler to demonstrate the point. "Economics is hard; we get it. Here's Margot Robbie in a bubble bath."
The ensemble cast bring all of these themes together very successfully, and the rapport and banter among them is very fun to watch. Carell is particularly excellent and Bale is, as usual, good as the brilliant but often extremely irritating Burry. Gosling's character is perhaps the least likeable but it's OK because he's a loveable douche! The script is very funny too, although the humour is usually dark; the soundtrack, which shifts from 2000s classic like Crazy and Milkshake to the full-on camp of The Phantom of the Opera, keeps the tone light. In other words, The Big Short is immensely fun to watch and it might even teach you something, without needing to resort to any of the self-righteous indignation of Capitalism: A Love Story.
For further reading on the subject, I highly recommend John Lanchester's Whoops!, which provides a genuinely lay-friendly and often even entertaining explanation of the economic crisis.