THIS IS A TRUE STORY.
Brad Pitt must think Michael Lewis is a genius. Perhaps he is. Lewis is the financial journalist who wrote “Moneyball”, a book about a baseball manager who used statistics to win games, and “The Big Short”, about the housing bubble that sent the world into the Great Recession of 2008. Pitt secured the rights to both books through his company Plan B and turned them into movies. Moneyball (2011) took a humorous approach to a complex issue, and so does The Big Short – to an even more impressive degree.
In 2005, hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale) discovers that the subprime loans that are part of the U.S. housing market are providing fewer and fewer returns. After looking at the numbers, Burry realizes that there is no way that the market can avoid a collapse that will begin in 2007, and that his clients can benefit from this by letting him bet against the housing market, to “short” financial institutions. At that time, the general wisdom said that housing is basically the only market that can’t fail because “who doesn’t pay their mortgage?”
Every bank Burry visits is only happy to take the bet; his eccentric appearance (socially awkward, with just one eye, and always wearing shorts and a t-shirt) helps bankers think that he’s crazy. Burry is not the only one though to realize that dark days lie ahead…
A very ambitious film
I didn’t believe that this project would succeed as well as it did, since the crisis had already been thoroughly explored in the documentary Inside Job (2010). Comedy director Adam McKay had never made a great movie, but this turned out to be something else entirely, a very ambitious film that follows a few key characters as they stumble onto what is soon to become the greatest financial crisis since the Depression. Some are real, like Burry, and some are based on people who played a part in one way or the other; for instance, Steve Carell’s character was inspired by Steve Eisman, a Wall Street hedge fund manager who made a lot of money shorting subprime mortgages.
McKay fought against the idea that his “heroes” needed to be squeaky-clean, and they certainly are not; remote and unlikable, Bale, Carell and Pitt’s quirky characters offer a lot of resistance, but they grow on us, and so do a few other characters. Even though they make a lot of money on a “game” that ruins hundreds of thousands of people, there is a basic decency underneath and McKay makes us understand them. Obviously, Bale, Carell and Ryan Gosling are also tremendously entertaining, the latter (in my view) channeling Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992). The filmmakers combine irreverence with an educational approach as they try to make us understand what created the housing bubble; part of the black, ironic comedy is having some of the trickier financial products created in the last decade explained by, for instance, Margot Robbie in a bubble bath and Anthony Bourdain in a restaurant kitchen, using food as an illustration.
The dialogue is quick and sharp, heavy on information but also funny; McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph take us down a complicated path, juggling between many characters without losing focus or the entertainment value.
Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd may use close-ups a little too often, but his documentary approach (with handheld camera and, occasionally, blurred vision) lends a queasiness to the film. A sense of hopelessness creeps upon us near the end as we realize that it’s going to happen again. Individual money managers, and comedians, can always rely on the stupidity of Wall Street.
The Big Short 2015-U.S. 130 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Arnon Milchan, Brad Pitt. Directed by Adam McKay. Screenplay: Charles Randolph, Adam McKay. Book: Michael Lewis. Cinematography: Barry Ackroyd. Editing: Hank Corwin. Cast: Christian Bale (Michael Burry), Steve Carell (Mark Baum), Ryan Gosling (Jared Vennett), Brad Pitt, John Magaro, Finn Wittrock… Rafe Spall, Marisa Tomei, Melissa Leo. Cameos: Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez, Anthony Bourdain.
Oscar: Best Adapted Screenplay. BAFTA: Best Adapted Screenplay.
Last word: “Editor Hank Corwin has this great move that I’ve never seen. I’ve seen it in movies, but I’ve never seen an editor do it in front of me, where he cuts off dialogue for the added punch. Fucking love it. So we were using stuff like that to create raggedness where sometimes the movie would get a little smooth. I’d be like, ‘I don’t like that it’s running this smooth. Maybe just kind of fuck with stuff just to make sure it’s always a little off because these guys are off, and it’s an off perspective.’ I don’t think I’ve done such fine tuning with that kind of stuff before, which was really fun.” (McKay, Slash Film)