The Big Short doesn’t sound like the typical movie that would excite an audience – a drama based on bankers and the impending collapse of the housing market towards the end of the last decade. With talk of credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations, it sounds about as exciting as the replacement Krusty The Klown episode on The Simpsons about “Collective Bargaining Agreements”, but it soon turns into an intensely gripping drama.
With narration from Ryan Gosling as Jared Vennett from Deutsche Bank, we learn how a man called Lewis Rainiere from Salomon Brothers revitalised the banking industry (for them, at least) by turning bonds on their head and finding a way to make everyone rich. It was the “the mortgage-backed security”. Instead of one person’s fixed-rate mortgage, where it’ll have a small return for low risk, they would put loads of these together as a single bond, and the return is now high, but still with a low risk. The basis was “Who doesn’t pay their mortgage?”
And so this worked for almost 30 years until 2008 when they realised it wasn’t counting on an economic downturn, people losing their jobs, *NOT PAYING THEIR MORTGAGE*, and so it all goes tits up. There is more to it than that, however, as once they’d made their money, the banks also threw riskier mortgages into the bonds, while those ratings agencies who decide how good a bond is (giving them all AAA status because if they don’t then another ratings agency will, and so they’ll lose out on their cut) to keep the profit-making happening. This could not continue, and yes, it sounds just so ever-so slightly dodgy.
Enter Christian Bale as Michael Burry, a former doctor who lost an eye due to a childhood illness, who, in 2005, plans to ‘short’ the bonds, which means to bet against them. His aim is to get a bank to make himself one of these bonds and then buy it because he thinks he can make money on the bank paying out for something they think will never happen, because he has a hunch about this housing crisis. By then going to lots of other banks to do this same thing, this becomes a very big short. And whose money would he be using to find all this? There’s the question. You can tell he has a devil-may-care attitude because he lives in his office, walks around in bare feet, spends all day listening to heavy metal when work should be taking place and gets a cheap-ass haircut. Whatever he’s using his money for, it’s not showing in his appearance.
Others looking to make a fortune out of this as well include Mark Baum (Steve Carell, giving a strong performance building nicely on last year’s Foxcatcher), an arrogant man who admits he has no problem telling people when they’re wrong, yet he’s arrogant in a good way because he’s trying to get to the truth about everything. Even as a young child, he was looking for inconsistencies in the word of God because he has a nose for sniffing out bullshit. While on the phone to his wife, Cynthia (Marisa Tomei), he observes the public are walking around in blissful ignorance, moaning “Everyone’s walking around like they’re in a goddamn Enya video!”
So there’s a neat level of humour slipped in amongst the drama, which also includes some brief asides I wasn’t expecting, such as one early on when we get bombarded with complex information and then Vennett adds in his narration, and suddenly he adds: “Here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to explain things.” And there she is. There’s lots of little touches here and there which make this a treat to watch, sometimes involving these direct-to-camera pieces, setting everything out in straight-forward terms without talking down to the audience.
Finally, two other major characters in this are Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), who set up a hedge fund company in their garage a few years earlier, and so are still green around the gills to a degree, who also bring in the help Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt, looking a hell of a lot like Robert Redford), a former trader in Singapore who also believed the housing market would go downhill as well as the rest of the world collapsing big-time.
One of the biggest crashes was that of Lehman Brothers, on September 15th 2008, the day my younger nephew was born. When I visited him in hospital, he was crying and screaming at the top of his lungs. How did he keep up with the news like that?
To fully understand what’s going on, since I had to look up some of the info afterwards, is a hell of a mindbender, but it’s worth the time invested and I found a good thread on IMDB’s message board about it, especially since the film doesn’t fully explain the final position of every main character trying to make their millions, so there was room for confusion, which does let it down to a degree. One poster in this thread nailed it with, “Now I can’t shake the feeling that the financial market is just a high stakes roulette game.”
However, in (big) short, everyone’s out to make money and they’re betting with money they don’t have, and this was prevalent in the UK when a lot of mortgages were sold on a 125% basis, so home owners were taking out big loans at 125% of the value of the house – a ridiculous situation in itself, sometimes with self-declaration mortgages, so you told the bank that you could afford them without having to provide proof. Anyone with a brain can see what a bad idea that is, but when the banks don’t care….
By the way, on the acting stakes, I bigged up Steve Carell earlier, but in truth, all of the major cast members are on top form. I’m not sure whether it begs to be seen in the cinema, though, and if you watch it at home, you could pause/rewind/look things up as you go in order to get to grips with it all.
Running time: 130 minutes
Studio: Paramount Pictures UK
Format: 2.35:1 (Canon Cinema RAW (4K), Super 35)
Released: January 22nd 2016
Director: Adam McKay
Producers: Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Arnon Milchan and Brad Pitt
Screenplay: Charles Randolph and Adam McKay (based on the novel by Michael Lewis)
Music: Nicholas Britell
Michael Burry: Christian Bale
Mark Baum: Steve Carell
Jared Vennett: Ryan Gosling
Charlie Geller: John Magaro
Jamie Shipley: Finn Wittrock
Ben Rickert: Brad Pitt
Danny Moses: Rafe Spall
Porter Collins: Hamish Linklater
Vinnie Daniel: Jeremy Strong
Cynthia Baum: Marisa Tomei
Kathy Tao: Adepero Oduye
Herself: Margot Robbie
Herself: Selena Gomez
Lewis Ranieri: Rudy Eisenzopf
Michael Burry’s Mom: Shauna Rappold
Michael Burry’s Dad: Brandon Stacy
Young Michael Burry: Aiden Flowers
Paul Baum: Peter Epstein
Rabbi: David Zalkind
Mark Baum’s Mom: Carrie Lazar
Man Stealing Cab: Mychael Bates
Reviewer of movies, videogames and music since 1994. Aortic valve operation survivor from the same year. Running DVDfever.co.uk since 2000. Nobel Peace Prize winner 2021.