At the Movies with Alan Gekko: The Big Short

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Comedy-Drama/ Stars: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Finn Wittrock, John Magaro, Jeremy Strong, Rafe Spall, Melissa Leo, Marisa Tomei, Karen Gillan/ Runtime: 130 minutes

As we have it laid out quite bluntly for us as an audience in the very beginning of The Big Short, “normal people aren’t really meant to fully understand the financial world”. The sad reality of that statement is that this is incredibly true. This is because the financial industry is one that is filled to the brim with all kinds of strategies and programs that come attached with names that sound like they were pulled out of a hat…or someplace else with the overall idea at the end of the day being to confuse you to no end so that you’ll just leave all of your business aka money in the hands of an advisor. An advisor who I should also add may or may not just use your money to get themselves rich and be happy to leave you in the poor house. Indeed one could argue that it’s this particular aspect of the system that The Big Short aims to entirely upend and destroy. Indeed upon seeing the film I can safely say that it does just that as The Big Short manages to present us with an engaging true story that’s brought to life with fantastic performances and is as entertaining as it is educational about the economic crisis that hit this country, and eventually the world, like a bullet train over a decade ago.

The plot is as follows: Based on the book of the same name by Michael Lewis, whose work also brought us the just as awesome Moneyball a few years ago, the film is built around an ensemble of characters who, save for a few, never actually interact. However, they are all connected through the fact that they saw the collapse of the housing market coming before anyone else did. Among this group of what the industry unfairly called “weirdos” and “bizarre individuals” are the socially inept and having a glass eye yet spectacularly brilliant Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), the rage-fueled and self-loathing Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his team, the extremely egotistical Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) and the young, inexperienced duo of Jamie Shipley and Charlie Geller (Finn Wittrock, John Magaro). Indeed as the movie goes on, we as audience members all watch as each portion of our group discovering the terrible truth behind the housing market from a different angle, but all eventually coming to the same dreadful and absolutely terrible conclusion that the entire system is being propped up on bad loans that are all but guaranteed to fail. Thus over the course of several years we get to witness all of our characters essentially invest in what could best be described as the inevitable explosion of a ticking time bomb…

Now there is obviously an overly-dramatic version of this movie that could have been made. Yet the greatest asset of The Big Short and what really makes this film work as well as it does is the blended tone approach provided by Adam McKay, who also co-wrote the script with Charles Randolph. This is because McKay takes what could be dry-as-toast material about Collateralized Debt Obligations and smartly applies his impressive comedic acumen to get it all across in an entertaining way. Indeed long before it even has a chance of losing the audience, McKay grabs them with some impressive fourth-wall breaking that gives the characters opportunities to explain themselves. Yet perhaps the best moments come when the film breaks away from the narrative altogether and cuts away to such people like Margot Robbie in a bathtub explaining sub-prime mortgages, or Anthony Bourdain, I shit you not here, comparing CDOs to some nasty seafood stew or even Selena Gomez and the economist Richard H. Thaler explaining synthetic CDOs while seated at a Las Vegas gambling table. Indeed it should be noted that learning all of this awful information about the financial system will very likely boil your blood and leave you incensed that nobody else either saw or wanted to see the collapse coming. Actually I take that back: if anything, you may feel like you just got punched in the gut as soon as the credits start to roll, but hey you’ll at least be laughing and smiling before the darker realizations hit as potently and as powerfully as they do.

Equally deserving of praise is just how non-biased The Big Short manages to be as it brilliantly does not point fingers at specific people or parties. Instead this movie actually makes you think about the entire governmental system as a whole that allowed the banks to operate with minimal regulation and let the housing bubble unwisely build over the course of multiple decades as it did. Thus it shows there’s a particular level of trust in moviegoers that McKay demonstrates with the film as he really just does his job to present the facts as true events and follow the stories of the men who saw it all coming. Indeed at the end of the day it really is left to you as a viewer to decide how you feel about all of it though obviously the bet on the movie’s behalf, as well as I feel it’s important to add my own, is that by the end of the movie everything you just witnessed is all going to seriously piss you off, if not make you feel like you have either just gotten sandbagged in the face or as I said before punched in the gut. Indeed I sincerely hope though that this film will also at the same time convince you to pay more attention to what’s going on in that arena of the world around us.

Now don’t get me wrong the nature of the narrative isn’t without its pitfalls. By that, and to be more specific, these pitfalls take the form of the fact that everyone in the audience already knows what happened in 2008, and by extension what happens to all of the main players. Yet what really keeps you engaged in that area are the truly fantastic performances from everyone in the ensemble. This of course starts with dependable actor Christian Bale who is fantastic as the oddball Burry. Indeed, although he’s almost entirely isolated in his corner of the story Bale does provide The Big Short with some of its best moments as he does extreme levels of research and fights against those who think he’s absolutely insane for betting against the housing market. Brad Pitt is also wonderful in what is a more-limited role playing a former insider turned outsider who finds himself getting reluctantly pulled back into the financial world after the soon-to-burst bubble is brought to his attention. Really, though, it’s Steve Carell’s turn that anchors the film. This is because Mark Baum is not only a good character representation of all the anger that the film generates or should generate inside each and every one of us about the really truly f’d up banking world and the practices that they did to the American people, but also is the one who makes you realize that at the end of the day the protagonists of this story are not heroes. Rather they’re simply people who saw a broken system, and ultimately profited from its complete failure (and by proxy the financial ruin of thousands of people). Yet while it’s tricky water to navigate Carell really pulls it off with what turns out to be an truly fantastic emotional and complex performance.

All in all it’s hard not to be impressed by The Big Short. That’s because this is one movie which actually manages to tackle a truly complex subject matter with a proportionately complex narrative structure, but then manages to infuse it with creativity and a smart sensibility that then helps the finished product come together as an equally thought-provoking and amusing film that is also truly an impressive piece of serious work from the director of Anchorman, and if this is what he can add to the world of “prestige” films, then I’m definitely curious to see more. On a scale of 1-5 I give The Big Short a 4 out of 5.