Let me first say that I know next to nothing about big banking terms or the housing market and unless that knowledge impacts a major life decision, I don’t care to learn much about it. The filmmakers behind The Big Short realize that many people feel as I do, and they work with it. They take what is a very dry subject and make a fun and quirky movie about it. That being said, I apologize in advance if I fudge on terms and lingo ahead.
This movie could have easily just been a bunch of white guys in suits getting worked up about numbers and big bank terms. It kind of is… but the film has a charm and charisma all its own that makes it less pretentious. It breaks the fourth wall multiple times, sometimes telling us just how close to the truth the last scene was or wasn’t.
When the film gets to a moment where they need us to understand some big banking term, they break it down in with a fun, easy to understand example, often with Jenga or a celebrity guest like Selena Gomez. For example, when talking about CDO’s, they bring in chef Anthony Bourdain. He explains that he’s got old halibut that didn’t sell on Friday, so instead of counting his losses and tossing it out, he just drops it in a seafood stew for Sunday. And that’s what a CDO is made of some new stuff, but also some old stinky fish no one wanted. Look, I learned something!
Anyway, The Big Short is about the guys who see the big mortgage crisis that hit the mid 2000s coming years before it happened. There is Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a man much better with numbers than with people who sees it first. Without his investor’s consent, he bets, or shorts, against multiple big banks, who think what he’s doing is dumb and crazy. The banks gladly make the deals with Burry, thinking they’ve got the advantage. When other investment firms understand what Burry has done, they take out shorts as well. There is a firm run by Mark Baum (Steve Carrell) who prides themselves on being very cynical. Then there is Charlie (John Marago) and Jamie (Finn Wittrock), two young men who started a firm in a garage and turned $10,000 into 30 million. They catch wind of the shorts against the banks, ask their banking guru friend Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) for help and advice and go in on it as well.
The common American people affected by the housing crisis are not forgotten in The Big Short, though they are not in the spotlight. One scene shows a man who rents a house very concerned to learn that is landlord has not been paying the mortgage when he has been dutifully paying the rent. Later in the film, we see the same man and his family living out of car. I’m sure the jackass who didn’t pay the mortgages was doing fine. Good job, America.
Christian Bale has earned an Oscar nomination in his supporting role as Michael Burry. Michael is a unique character. He works at his finance firm in old ill fitting t-shirts, sandals and annoyingly blares metal rock in his office as if he were listening to Mozart. He has a very awkward demeanor, he is obviously better with numbers than with people. Perhaps that’s why he would be the first bold enough to bet against the whole American economy and how he can stand so firm against his decision. Bale makes this character very believable, but not very endearing.
The Big Short is nominated for a total of five Academy Awards. Along with Bale’s nomination, they include best adapted screenplay, best editing and best editing. Adam McKay picks up his first nomination as a director. Depending on how the Academy votes, I can see The Big Short taking the award for editing. The quirkiness goes a long way to make the film much more enjoyable.
Perhaps the most powerful comparison The Big Short makes, is one of its most subtle. We learn that Mark’s brother committed suicide. He saw the signs but didn’t do much about it. Maybe he was in denial or just hoped he would get over it. But when the worst happens and you see it coming but do nothing to prevent it, nothing can make you feel more terrible and irresponsible. If only Wall Street’s big bankers of yester decade felt as moral and remorseful as Mark does in this film.
“We live in an era of fraud in America. Not just in banking, but in government, education, religion, food. Even baseball…”