Sunday, February 21, 2016

Rooting For Those Betting Against The Market: How The Big Short Works!

The Good: Engaging story, Decent performances, Direction and pacing
The Bad: Light on character growth/development
The Basics: Smart and worthwhile, The Big Short is more than just Oscarbait.

Over the last year, I have been a bad movie reviewer. The truth is, there have not been a lot of movies I have been excited about seeing and, as a result, I have not bothered with the rest. That said, my commitment to my Best Picture Project (That's Here!) has led me to break out of my apathy and get on seeing some of the Best Picture Oscar nominees in preparation for next week's big ceremony. So far, all I have done for the Oscars is write about the OscarsSoWhite Movement (article here!) and, long before the nominees were announced, see The Martian (reviewed here!). Tonight, I start with the Best Picture nominees with one of the few nominated films I was actually interested in watching: The Big Short.

The Big Short is a film that instantly garnered my interest - even if I did not rush right out to see it - because it was about the housing bubble crisis and it was directed by Adam McKay. My first thought was, "a comedy about the housing crisis?!" Then, I learned that The Big Short was a drama and I thought, "Adam McKay is doing a drama?! How will that work?" As it turns out, it worked out painfully well . . . mostly because McKay smartly blends the most horrific story of mismanagement with some incredibly funny lines.

Opening with the introduction of Lewis Ranieri, who created the mortgage-backed security bond, The Big Short educates and then entertains as it informs people of how the financial crisis of 2008 was precipitated. The film is based on a true story, but it is incredibly important to note that The Big Short is a film and this review is based on the movie, not the historical events it depicts. So, when I talk about characters, it is entirely specific to the film version of The Big Short.

Lewis Ranieri created the mortgage-backed security, a bond that pools the risk and debt for mortgages. In the 1970s, he sought to create money by making a long-term bond based on mortgages. Thirty years later, banker Michael Burry begins to investigate the mortgage-backed securities, based on the notion that the tech bubble burst in 2001, but the housing market in the tech corridor did not appear to be affected. After putting together data, Burry goes to the investment bank Goldman Sachs to create a bond to bet against the housing market. Meanwhile, investment banker Mark Baum - who is shaken by the effects of his brother's suicide - becomes outraged by bank overdraft fees and corruption. Baum learns about Burry's scheme when Jared Vennett's wrong number pitching the trade . . . to bet against the housing market.

Baum's team investigates some of the properties that are part of the mortgage bonds and discover that Burry's and Vennett's theories are likely true. In January 2007, mortgage loan default rate skyrockets and the market fails to adjust, which alarms Burry and Baum. The failure of the bonds created that bet against the housing securities market alerts most of the key players to the institutional fraud or outright stupidity of those at the top of the securities industry. As the truth comes out, the money flows in the direction of the four small groups that were smart and connected enough to bet against the housing market and the effects on the individuals in the groups are profound. Burry outs the mortgage industry to his investors and by April 2007, the housing bubble is collapsing and the entire economy is thrown into free fall by July.

There are few movies that so effectively manage to captivate when the subjects of the film are people profiting off the suffering of others. What The Big Short does so well, in addition to educating viewers to the biggest financial calamity of our generation (and the criminal enterprise that perpetrated it), is humanize those who made obscene amounts of money on it. The banking institutions might be made up of individuals, but the investment bankers who profited from the housing collapse are a much smaller group and The Big Short manages to illustrate well their humanity. While some of the profound effects of profiting from the financial market's collapse are only shown in the closing text montage, both Michael Burry and Mark Baum illustrate their understanding of the human cost of their financial profit.

Steve Carell entirely nails the frustration Mark Baum feels as he does the investigative work that proves Burry's theories are valid. Carell is given the film's deepest performance role and Baum is the film's most tormented and interesting character. Baum's sense of loss and disillusionment sets him up to profit from the investments he is making, while Burry's sense of being an outsider merely makes him determined in a somewhat monolithic way. For sure, Christian Bale is wonderful as Burry, but anyone who has seen Bale as Bruce Wayne has seen him play determined before!

The Big Short breaks the fourth wall to explain important financial terms and concepts. Adam McKay and writers Charles Randolph and Michael Lewis (who wrote the book upon which the film is based) tie the seeming complexity to the financial markets with pop culture in a brilliant way. In that fashion, they illustrate how major institutions bamboozle the populace by getting them to look in an entirely different direction from the calamities that are falling upon them.

Describing The Big Short is like trying to draw out a description of Argo (reviewed here!) - "It's a film about the rescue operation for the Iran hostages." - The Big Short is an explanation of the financial crisis of the mid-2000s . . . and how a few people made a lot of money off it. Of course, both films are deeper than that, but both are explorations of nuance, lines and studies in how the known can be made entertaining. Much of the credit for the power of The Big Short comes from the direction of Adam McKay. McKay has a great sense of timing for the cuts and cutaways and keeps the pace of The Big Short tight and flowing in a way that makes one almost instantly forget that the people who are the subjects of the film are hardly magnanimous.

The Big Short does not browbeat the humor or the humanity of the people who suffered to make the profits of the films protagonists. In fact, the simplicity of seeing one man - who paid his rent on time - evicted when his landlord defaulted on the mortgage makes the human statement that the ironic voiceover at the end glosses over.

As I begin my sojourn down films specifically for my Best Picture Project, it is hard not to imagine that I might have started high and picked the winner right off the bat. The Big Short has a lot of the key elements for a Best Picture, so long as one looks at the somewhat dated and specific systemic problems as an allegory of the larger corruptions of an institution that shows no signs of reforming. The Big Short is smart and complicated, even if it is not the most character-driven story.


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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