Blockbusters with Brigham: The Big Short
by Sam Brigham on Friday, February 26th, 2016
On December 11th, 2015, The Big Short was released in American theaters. Based on Michael Lewis’ 2010 non-fiction book of the same name, the biographical comedy-drama centers on events leading up to the 2007-2008 financial crisis caused by the build-up of the housing market and the credit bubble. Director Adam McKay succeeds in transforming the narrative of several men who foresaw—and profited from—the economic collapse into a compelling and moving, though occasionally confusing film. If issues of finance pique your interest and you’re willing to pay attention to the fast-paced storyline and swath of rather esoteric economic terms, you may find The Big Short very interesting.
However, the film’s non-fiction premise grows complicated as the plot progresses, potentially boring those who do not have a conceptual understanding of economics. In the early 2000s, faced with a shortage of new buyers, banks began giving mortgages to more people who were less likely to be able to pay them back. These risky mortgages were called “subprime” mortgages. In 2005, realizing that the housing market was extremely unstable and would collapse in the coming years, eccentric hedge fund manager Michael Burry, portrayed by Christian Bale, decides to “short” complicated mortgage bonds and generate a credit default swap market, essentially betting against the housing industry for his own profit. Soon, trader Jared Vennett, portrayed by Ryan Gosling, learns of Burry’s actions and enters the credit default swap market as well. He accidentally alerts hedge fund manager Mark Baum, played by Steve Carell, and his team to these plans, and the two groups start working together. Concurrently, ambitious young investors Charlie Geller and Jamie Shipley discover a paper by Vennett, and they too involve themselves in credit default swaps with the aid of retired banker Ben Rickert, played by Brad Pitt.
Viewers see these three groups working separately to profit from the impending economic collapse. In the face of much skepticism from their contemporaries, the characters all proceed to take advantage of the situation. The film’s depiction of cold-hearted big business elicits deep moral questions not only about privilege, but also about when ignoring the facts becomes immoral. Moreover, the investor characters all face difficult decisions and moral qualms regarding their decision to take advantage of the decline of millions of Americans, even if they do so at the bank’s expense. However, each ultimately brings in a lot of money.
The acting in The Big Short was good overall, but showed surprising patches of weakness. Ryan Gosling convincingly portrays a flashy trader whom David Sims of The Atlantic smartly characterizes as “simultaneously repulsive and magnetic”, and Carrell successfully depicts a hot-headed-but earnest man who grows increasingly frustrated with the financial status quo. Interestingly, I think that the lesser-known names on the cast of central characters actually showed the strongest performances; I found Magaro and Wittrock casual and youthful enough to perfectly play two ambitious young investors. Sadly, I thought that two famous actors disappointed. Pitt appears out of his element, simply not meant to play a retired near-recluse. Similarly, Bale cannot pull off his role as a quirky, capricious hedge fund manager. In my opinion, these men should stick to action movies.
Still, the movie was enjoyable in other respects. The cinematography was stunning, with smoothly juxtaposed shots from creative angles à la Breaking Bad. There are also mid-scene interruptions in which actors “break the fourth wall” and explain plot elements directly to the audience. Additionally, there are several celebrity cameo appearances, most notably Selena Gomez’s appearance in a casino to explain the complicated CDOs (collateralized debt obligations). Indeed, comic relief is present throughout the film, including a scene in which a number of the men are alarmed by alligators in Florida, and one in which Carrell’s aloof character finds himself in a strip club, lecturing dancers about the dangers of a bad mortgage
I’m interested to see how the Academy Awards play out this weekend. Having received very high praise, The Big Short is currently nominated for five Academy Awards: Best Film Editing, Best Director (for McKay), Best Supporting Actor (surprisingly, for Bale), Best Adapted Screenplay, and even Best Picture. While The Big Short can appear unduly complex to those without a background understanding of the economics behind the financial collapse, and some big-name actors recruited for the movie deliver disappointing performances, it’s an interesting, well-written film that forces us all to think about the ethics in our financial decisions.
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