It’s interesting how Hollywood is approaching the shenanigans of Wall Street and the financial meltdown that nearly destroyed the world’s economy. Filmmakers are astutely seeing the whole fiasco as a farce.
Two years ago it was Martin Scorsese’s “Wolf of Wall Street,” which portrayed a real-life financial con artist in a raucous, wildly entertaining comedy located at the intersection of Wall Street and Debauchery Drive.
Now we get “The Big Short,” a satirical, jaw-dropping account of the market meltdown of 2008 told not from the perspective of the reckless swindlers who operated America’s financial institutions, but the oddball outsiders and colorful misfits who foresaw disaster and bet against the whole corrupt system.
This makes complete sense. The collapse of U.S. economy — still virtually unregulated despite that meltdown and a taxpayer bailout of financial institutions — caused so much damage and pain to ordinary Americans, many still befuddled about what exactly happened, that perhaps all one can do is laugh.
Laughing instead of crying does express a kind of outrage over the sad fact our moral compass can no longer find true north.
Instead of taking you inside the lion’s den, “The Big Short” fixates on the geeks and morally aggravated who, like financial idiot savants, chose to wade into the minutia of subprime mortgages only to discover that “subprime” was another way of saying “shit.”
The unusual choice to direct such a movie is Adam McKay, the guy behind such nonsense comedies as “Step Brothers” and “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.” But think about it: Who better to bring a hyper, ragged, farcical tone to the mysterious world of Wall Street finance and con artistry?
The movie is sheer brilliance. Rather than walking a viewer through the chicanery and subterfuge with dry factoids and talking heads — oh, there are talking heads, all right, but even this is brilliantly done — McKay takes you instead on a roller coaster ride through Armageddon.
This is a disaster movie with laughs, a catastrophe with a sly smile.
The screenplay by Adams and Charles Randolph is based on the book “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine” by Michael Lewis, author of two previous books turned into movies, “Moneyball” and “The Blind Side.”
In looking into what caused the market meltdown, Lewis ran into several eccentrics who saw the implosion coming. This character-driven approach became his way into the story of the fraud and deceit by which phony financial products were sold to investors while Wall Street bankers and government regulatory agencies either ignored the time bomb or were too dumb to hear it ticking.
In the film’s retelling of the tale, the first guy to realize things didn’t add up was a San Jose-based money manager and heavy-metal enthusiast Dr. Michael Burry (he was a trained neurologist), who actually studied thousands of suspect home loans bundled into highly-rated mortgage bonds.
Suffering from blindness in one eye and Asperger’s syndrome, Burry is played by Christian Bale as a man poor at social relations and human contact but blessed with a brilliant mind, a man who comes to work barefoot and blows off steam banging away at his drum set.
Seeing an opportunity, he invents a financial instrument, a credit default swap, that allows him to “short” the booming housing market. His hedge fund owners and investors are outraged at this bet, but his contract allows him the freedom to invest money as he sees fit.
Others get wind of Dr. Burry’s wild scheme and follow suit. The remaining characters in the movie are given fictional names though, presumably to allow the filmmakers more leeway in the comedy.
Ryan Gosling plays Jared Vennett, a Deutsche Bank trader whose show-and-tell demonstration of how the subprime bonds can collapse using tumbling Jenga blocks persuades outspoken hedge fund manger Mark Baum to invest millions in credit default swaps.
Steve Carell is Baum, a character who holds down the film’s moral center. Constantly outraged by his fellow human beings’ capacity for chicanery, he sees shorting the housing market as one big Screw You to the banks he so loathes.
His wife (Marisa Tomei) worries that her husband feels too good when he feels bad and enraged. He also comes with his own chorus of contentious analysts and contrarians (Rafe Spall, Jeremy Strong, Hamish Linklater) who act like detectives in a police movie, bringing the latest news of their investigations into “smart” money.
Two twenty-something money managers, Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro), catch the credit default swap fever, but their $30 million fund is too small for a seat at the big boys’ table. So they prevail upon former trader-turned- environmental-doomsayer Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to use his Wall Street connections to place their bets.
The film races through its scenes in a jumpy manner, its characters always on the move yet in confined spaces, pacing in small offices, striding down crowded Manhattan streets shouting into mobile phones, driving with a realtor through a new Florida development emptied of most residents due to mortgage defaults.
In the characters’ encounters with smug mortgage brokers, Wall Street bankers and slick investors the movie underlines what a macho world this is, not unlike that in “Wolf of Wall Street,” where the wilder the scheme and more disguised the toxic assets are underneath layers of loans, the greater the swagger.
Baum confronts two athletic-looking mortgage brokers who regale him with tales of deceit and dumb money. Why are they confessing to crimes, he wonders. An associate points out they’re not confessing, they’re bragging.
There’s a kind of sexual turn-on operating here: the more someone can screw people, the richer he gets. Isn’t America great?
DP Barry Ackroyd shoots often with a hand-held camera and Hank Corwin edits the film so each scene feels like a documentary crew invaded moments before without anyone noticing. The level of energy and urgency is tremendous as dialogue comes hard and fast.
McKay lets characters occasionally address you, staring straight into the camera, giving the movie an almost Brechtian theatrical quality as well as rollicking guide to the meltdown. The movie brings in guest celebrities —here at last are your talking heads — to explain the arcane financial concepts.
Glamorous Margot Robbie sips champagne in a bubble bath as she explores mortgage-backed securities. TV chef/host Anthony Bourdain is shown repackaging three-day-old fish into a seafood stew as a nifty metaphor for collateralized debt obligations that bundle bad mortgages and get sold as triple-A rated financial products.
For “synthetic CDOs” — this is one I can’t figure out — Selena Gomez plays blackjack in a Vegas casino while behavioral economist Dr. Richard Thaler shows what can happen if onlookers take side bets on her hand.
There are small but telling gags. A scene in which Baum confronts a Standard & Poors credit rating analyst (Melissa Leo) about how thoroughly she scrutinizes the stocks and bonds she rates has her coming from an ophthalmologist wearing temporary black shades over her eyes, making her literally and metaphorically “blind.”
The queasy thought does dawn on you that by making these outsiders betting against the U.S. economy the heroes, you’re being asked to root for the financial collapse. But McKay and Randolph spotted this challenge and give you the triumph of a band of outsiders but spares you a happy ending.
“Winning” seems more like losing here. The economy was rigged and a few gamed that rigged system but no one pops any bubbly. Instead “The Big Short” is an astute satire Mark Twain would have been proud of, a tale of a new Gilded Age of highly concentrated wealth and rampaging hubris that preys upon the economically disadvantaged and did not — and still does not — care what havoc its wrecks.
Opens: December 11, 2015 (Paramount Pictures)
Production companies: Paramount and Regency Enterprises present a Plan B Entertainment Production
Cast: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Melissa Leo, Hamish Linklater, John Magaro, Rafe Spall, Jeremy Strong, Finn Wittrock, Marisa Tomei, Tracy Letts, Byron Mann, Adepero Oduye, Karen Gillian, Max Greenfield, Billy Magnussen
Director: Adam McKay
Screenwriters: Charles Randolph, Adam McKay
Based on the book by: Michael Lewis
Producers: Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Arnon Milchan
Executive producers: Louise Rosner-Meyer, Kevin Messick
Director of photography: Barry Ackroyd
Production designer: Clayton Hartley
Music: Nicholas Britell
Costume designer: Susan Matheson
Editor: Hank Corwin
R rating, 130 minutes