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Laugh, heave, repeat

11 December 2015 By Martin Langfield

“The Big Short” is a funny movie that leaves a toxic aftertaste. The 2008 financial crisis was too complex for any one medium or approach to tell it all. Journalists and protagonists have penned books. Hollywood has tried terse drama. There have been documentaries and radio shows. Now director Adam McKay, a former head writer on U.S. comedy show “Saturday Night Live,” goes for dark humor and inventive forms of exposition that barely mask disgust.

The film tracks five contrarian investors: a heavy-metal enthusiast with a glass eye, a semi-reptilian Wall Street dealmaker, two young money managers working out of a Colorado garage, and an anger-filled New York hedge-fund boss. It’s not fiction – all are based on real people, though most of their names have been changed in the film.

They all realized in the years before the crisis that something was rotten at the heart of the U.S. financial system. Many thousands of subprime loans underlying top-rated mortgage bonds were going to go bad. Sophisticated financial products built upon them would implode too, multiplying the effects. The U.S. economy could collapse. Although the events it portrays occurred within the last decade, “The Big Short” almost screams a reminder that this was real. It happened; don’t forget.

McKay conjures some coruscating performances from the big-name ensemble. Christian Bale portrays socially challenged metal-head Michael Burry, the real name of a money manager and former neurologist who saw the risk of rising loan defaults and bet against, or shorted, the U.S. housing market against the conventional wisdom. Ryan Gosling dons a hideous hairpiece to play the slick Wall Streeter. Brad Pitt hides behind a beard and anti-germ facemask as an ex-banker who believes the world is going to end soon but agrees to help the Colorado kids follow Burry’s lead.

Much of the film’s emotional heart resides in Mark Baum, the New York hedge-fund manager, played by comedian Steve Carell and based on a real-life hedgie named Steve Eisman. Baum sees unspeakable corruption in the antics of some Wall Street professionals who construct ever more complex financial instruments on rotten foundations with no thought for the people who will eventually get hurt. His own eventual short-selling of their creations carries an air of righteous wrath, even though he belongs to their world.

Guilt-ridden at the suicide of his brother, Baum oozes unprocessed rage. The money doesn’t seem to be the point at all – though he ends up making lots of it, as do all the contrarians the film follows.

McKay throws in vignettes that suggest an array of complicit behavior in the crisis, from an SEC regulator keen to get her next job with a big bank to a financial journalist afraid to upset his sources and a credit-rating agency too scared of losing business to assess risk accurately on toxic financial products.

Along a possible continuum of blame for the financial crisis, “The Big Short” comes over as pretty sure where the finger should fall, and it’s at the vampire-banker end of the scale. Irrespective of whether a moviegoer puts more weight on cock-up or conspiracy as explanations for the crisis, the cynicism, suspension of disbelief and groupthink exhibited by many of those involved, and their shunning of counterviews represented by Burry et al, are chilling.

McKay’s film, based on the 2010 book “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine” by Michael Lewis, departs from the previous financial meltdown movies such as 2011’s “Too Big to Fail” and “Margin Call.” In those films, viewers got a fly-on-the-wall look at bankers as they realize their world is about to fall apart and government officials trying to contain the damage. Tense meetings take place in conference rooms and corridors. The storytelling is conventional.

“The Big Short” likewise features some “you are there” moments as the crisis nears, but when slabs of exposition are needed to explain collateralized debt obligations and their ilk, McKay gets bolder. In one cameo, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain chops aging unsold fish into a seafood stew to show how a dodgy financial instrument gets made. Pop singer Selena Gomez and economist Richard Thaler demonstrate in a casino how bets upon bets upon bets multiply risk.

McKay seems keen, perhaps even a little desperate, to reach a broad new audience with his film, especially those who never understood or were too young to register what happened seven years ago. Toward the end, a fake sequence describes how authorities broke up banks in response to the crisis and sent those responsible to jail. Then everything screeches to a halt, reminding viewers that was not how it went. The film is an entertaining jeremiad, warning that it could all happen again. That message is worth heeding.

 

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