The subject matter of “The Big Short” is so deeply complicated the only people who will fully understand the minutia of what is happening are economists, financial analysts and, apparently, Florida strippers. No other film this year has come close to being as mind-boggling as this one is in certain places.
Director Adam McKay, best known for less mind-testing films such as “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” and “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” looks to put the financial collapse caused by the housing bubble that happened less than a decade ago into an understandable form. It’s a valiant effort. But too often the movie gets bogged down in conversations about sub-prime lending, collateralized debt obligation and other subjects that are the things of Alan Greenspan’s dreams.
The director’s approach is to follow three groups who recognize the entire American economy is built on a mortgage base that is doomed for failure. Each wants to use the knowledge of the impending doom to make their fortunes.
Christian Bale plays Michael Burry, a math savant with a glass eye and a dislike of wearing shoes. He has no social skills, which helps him become the first investment manager to spot the bad loans being made by the millions in the housing industry. He determines that massive amounts of money can be made by betting the bonds made up of those bad mortgages will fail. It seems like a bad bet because the housing market has always been strong. But, all the signs point to a collapse.
Ryan Gosling portrays the slimy bank trader, Jared Vennett, who catches wind of this money-making plan and enlists emotionally distraught hedge fund boss Mark Baum (Steve Carrell) to make a deal that could result in millions in profits – as long as the U.S. economy falls apart.
The last player is Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), a former stock trader who now lives off the grid, drawn back into the financial game by a couple of upstart financial whiz kids.
McKay tries to make this complicated story more understandable through direct-to-camera narration by many of the players. There are also some wickedly funny – and informative – segments featuring people you would never expect talking about high finance explaining some of the key pieces.
Storywise, it all ends up a losing battle. There is nothing simple about the financial spiderweb that was woven by the greedy. Any points that finally become clear lead to 10 more that are murky.
The film is at its best when McKay leaves the financial world and puts this story into a personal context. Baum’s team travels to Florida to check on the housing industry. What they find is a world where those writing mortgages don’t care if the money can be paid back. They just want to write as many loans as possible to get their massive bonus checks.
One mortgage writer brags that immigrants are the best clients because they can’t read the contracts.
But the movie gets drawn in by the black hole created by a financial world that by design is complicated and convoluted. While the actions are legal, there is such a foul smell to what is happening that there are no characters to like.
The movie is filled with odd, interesting and quirky financial players, but it is hard to get on the side of a person who wants to become rich through a economic tragedy that will cause millions to lose their homes and jobs.
Watching “The Big Short” is like trying to add up 25 numbers in your head while explaining the laws of supply and demand during a driving rainstorm. It takes your undivided attention. And yet, the story is so important as a cautionary tale of what could easily happen again that it should not be missed.
The Big Short
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Marisa Tomei
Director: Adam McKay
Rated R (sexual content, language, nudity)
Opened: Wednesday, Dec. 23