Breaking down the billionaire boys club that broke America
In The Big Short, the surprisingly irreverent new film from Adam McKay (Step Brothers, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy), we’re told, “you might think you know what happened, but you don’t.” Now, that’s not the most original phrasing for a story like this but it is truthful. Most Americans have no idea how just a few greedy people effectively tanked the U.S. economy in 2008 and the film, based on Michael Lewis’s 2010 best-seller (“The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine”), goes to great pains (and laughs) to explain it. Through voiceover, 4th wall breaking characters, crazy cameos that literally explain the most complicated elements of the sham and some action movie editing, McKay keeps our interest buoyed as the economy goes under water.
Christian Bale is fantastic as Dr. Michael Burry, the man who figured it all out. He’s a shorts-wearing, heavy metal listening, shoeless genius with zero social skills (to say he borders on Asperger’s in an understatement) but it’s often people like this that can have the single-minded focus to solve problems. Ironically, his Burry reminded me of Steve Jobs, a role Bale was supposed to play in early iterations of the Steve Jobs movie that currently stars Michael Fassbender. Burry saw what was coming, a bubble that would burst like the Internet bubble did.
The casting of Steve Carell, as Mark Baum, an angry, boisterous little man hell bent on breaking the banks’ hold on Wall Street, is the film’s most grievous error in judgment. He gives a performance almost as bad as his gay activist in Freeheld. In fact, at times they feel like two sides of the same loud, boorish coin. I would have loved to see someone like Skip Sudduth in this role. Carell doesn’t have the dramatic chops to pull of his lower key emotional moments (for what it’s worth, I thought he was terrible in Foxcatcher, too). He nearly threatens to drag the movie into the gutter. Were it not for the strength of the rest of the all-star cast, he would have.
Ryan Gosling, the film’s 4th wall breaker and Michael Lewis stand-in, with his greasy hair and two shades too dark of bronzer, is kind of a riot as Jared Vannett, the guy who rallies Burry and Baum to “bet against the American economy” and Brad Pitt’s elusive and reclusive Ben Rickert provides the film’s moral compass as a veteran trader.
Oscar winners Marisa Tomei (My Cousin Vinny) and Baum’s wife and Melissa Leo (The Fighter) as a credit rating agency analyzer are given little to nothing to do in this boys club.
There is a delicate balance McKay is trying to hit in the film; one part that is serious and wants the details of the financial meltdown to be felt and understood but it also consistently undercuts the grim reality with shots of humor and levity. It’s a good and a bad thing. There’s something a bit depressing about needing to joke up a terrible situation just in order to make it palatable. A spoonful of sugar, as Mary Poppins would say. But when you’re trying to explain what a synthetic CDO is, or a sub-prime mortgage, or tranches, unless you are deeply embedded in the world of financial institutions, it helps to have Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez explain a few things. One of the film’s detriments is that the focus is so heavily on the investors and hedge-fund managers that the real people who lost their homes, their livelihood and some their lives are tertiary. If one was up to the task, The Big Short would make a good companion piece to 99 Homes, which deals more directly with those that suffered at the hands of a few. Yet, it’s still a great counter to 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street, which overly glamorized the wrongdoers.
At times the film plays out like a disaster movie. You know it’s coming and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. The film’s coda offers no optimism either; reminding us that only one person, a guy from Credit Suisse, went to jail for the greatest corruption scandal in the history of the United States, it reminds us of just how powerless we are and were to stop it. But what it does do, without necessarily being a call to action, is give the public ammunition to hopefully avoid it in the future.