I’m behind on my Oscar nominees viewing, but I finally caught this one. I’d expected it to be more like Margin Call, but thankfully, though its subject matter is kind of similar, it is by turns funny and horrifying. Adapted from Michael Lewis’s non-fiction bestseller “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine,” it tells the story of how a small group of money men saw what was happening in the housing market in 2005 and set about shorting the market and making a killing. Along the way, they tried to wake banking regulators and the wider market to their realization that it was all about to go bust, but were totally ignored by those who were making money hand over fist on bad loans. It is a morality tale, very well told.
The first to see what was to come was Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a very non-Wall Street type math genius turned finance wiz who looked at the data on the housing market and predicted it could not sustain itself. Once he set up his very creative deals with the banks betting on it all going south, a few others heard about it and followed his insane lead. In the film it is scheming investment banker Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) who convinces Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his group to take the same big bet. And then a couple of young, but ambitious traders from California (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock) luck into hearing about it and join in with the help of their mentor, a retired trader named Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt). Cutting between these three investor teams and all the people who were telling them that they were crazy, we witness the unfolding of the financial disaster that hit the US and world markets in 2008. And it is very maddening to know that there were so many signs that the big banks, regulators, and media just chose to ignore.
Fortunately, Director Adam McKay (Anchorman) was smart enough to inject some levity into this depressing story. Concepts like “credit default swaps” and “shorting financial instruments” are explained in cameos by celebrities like Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdain. And Ryan Gosling’s smarmy narration also gives it a needed comic breath. It is a twisted story in that Burry and Baum knew what was going to happen and were upset that the economy was going to tank, and they also tried to convince others that they were on the right track, but by being right they made billions while the markets bankrupted millions of people. This is a very well done explanation of why Wall Street needs a lot more regulation. It’s also a really good film. See it!
(And for your Oscar ballot: It’s up for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Christian Bale), Best Adaptation, and Best Editing. It won best Screenplay and Supporting Actor at BAFTA. And AFI named it Movie of the Year and was on too many best-of list to name.)