noun The state of being unable or unwilling to believe something
What would you do with the knowledge that an entire institution -- a bedrock of Western civilization, even the world -- was corrupted, utterly broken and primed for collapse? What if you could make money off of that knowledge? And what if all the money you made came not as a consequence of exploiting the system itself, but merely through betting against its eventual downfall?
These aren’t the kind of hypotheticals you just dream up. They must be heard and “seen” to be believed. Those of us who go around worrying that the sky is actually falling can usually be cast off; you don’t typically start listening to the man on the corner with a bullhorn shoving unwanted pamphlets at passers-by, after all.
The Big Short is the story of the proverbial men on the corner who, in 2008, wound up being right for once. Adapted from Michael Lewis’ book of the same name, it follows the handful of investors on Wall Street who saw the housing crisis that brought the world economy to its knees ahead of time and, as a consequence, managed to make millions while everyone else lost billions.
The film, like its source material, does its level best to detail the ins and the outs of the crisis, acknowledging up front that trying to do so is liable to make you feel bored, stupid, or both. It explains how a good idea — the bundling together of thousands of ostensibly low-risk mortgage loans — became a ticking financial timebomb once the big banks were able to package and repackage high-risk loans to look much safer, thereby opening the floodgates for fraud on a massive scale.
I’ve read the book and now seen the movie adaptation, and, though I consider myself reasonably intelligent, I can’t tell you this crash course in subprime mortgages and collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and the S&P and Moody’s ratings systems won’t leave you feeling a little dumb. (If Ryan Gosling and a modified set of Jenga blocks can’t help me wholly understand how tranches played in to all of this, I’m not sure anything ever will.) But I do think you’ll be entertained — perhaps wildly so — in trying to put it all together.
The Big Short uses its star-studded ensemble cast to full effect. Christian Bale plays an eccentric and obsessive hedge fund manager who is first to discover the impending collapse. His brilliance? Simply looking closely at all the bad loans to be found in real CDOs. He’s soon followed by a big-bank insider (Gosling), then another hedge fund operating under the umbrella of Morgan Stanley and headed up by Steve Carrell, and then finally by a pair of total outsiders from Colorado working under the tutelage of a disillusioned retired banker portrayed by Brad Pitt.
There isn’t a main character here so much as there are puzzle pieces and prevailing moods. There is a collective and quite humorous incredulity as the fraudulence en masse comes in to focus — best personified by Carrell shouting over an exotic dancer who casually reveals that she has five home loans. There is smug self-satisfaction as they place their bets — aka credit default swaps — against the loans held by all of the big banks. Gosling’s character, the only that hews closely to the Wall Street douchebag stereotype, channels this best. There is horror as they begin to realize their bets will come good. And there is depressive guilt as they cash in in succession.
Of all people, it is director and co-writer Adam McKay pulling the strings here. You probably love one or more of McKay’s films (Anchorman, Step Brothers, Talladega Nights), which in a way makes this one all the more startling. Those are outrageous comedies. The Big Short is outrageous in its own way, and it will make you laugh, but it is much more preoccupied with education. There’s nothing remotely silly about the humor, save one stupidly racist monologue by Gosling’s character.
Indeed, the laughs are by and large a learning tool. Same goes for the near-constant breaking of the fourth wall, the quirky celebrity cameos by the likes of Margot Robbie and Anthony Bourdain, and the measured insertion of pop culture references and street/residential imagery in Las Vegas and Florida. Who knew the unserious guy who made a plate of cat poop funny had this in him?
The Big Short, unlike any of McKay’s other work, which relies so heavily on improvisation it’s clear to pretty much anyone watching, is downright methodical. It grounds you in the recent past, gives you perfectly useful CliffsNotes on the financial crisis of 2008 and a human angle to keep you interested. It moves fast and takes huge risks (the broken-fourth-wall moments so easily could have derailed the film), encouraging you to ask, “can you believe this happened,” first with a chuckle and then with an angry shout. In the end, it leaves you devastated.
McKay’s adaptation of Lewis’ book will leave you feeling appropriately incredulous, and thoroughly entertained too. Me? I can’t quite believe McKay did so well himself on top of it all. Silly or serious, his work demands another kind of attention now.