“The Big Short”, based on Michael Lewis’s book, is a film that wildly fluctuates between comedy and deadly serious criticism of Wall Street.
The producers, shouting out “Finance For Dummies”, follow a group of outlier financial analysts who predicted and bet on the fall of the U.S. housing market. 2011’s “Margin Call” told a similar story. “Wolf of Wall Street” also focused on investment banking as one excessive party, with attempts at humor.
The Big Short, a true story, feels like a lecture with subtitled definitions of arcane financial acronyms like CDO in PowerPoint slides. The tone becomes wearying, even nonsensical. For example, placing the beautiful Margot Robbie of “Wolf on Wall Street” in a bubble bath to explain what a “subprime” loan is. Laughable?
More a powerful expose of the securities market and how Wall Street bet against the ignorance of the average investor, “The Big Short” sometimes does entertain the viewer as we laugh at ourselves for our guileless trust in those folks who duped us out of billions of dollars of our hard-earned money. We feel the horror of understanding that on Wall Street greed trumps common sense. The film shines light on the backrooms of the financial meltdown and collapse, bringing self-interest and corruption into the stark light of the banking and financial world.
The cast, particularly Steve Carell and Christian Bale, own “The Big Short”, channeling the “Boiler Room” and “Glengarry Glen Ross” as whistleblowers who realize that gaming the system can’t last. Playing a changed man whose brother paid the ultimate sacrifice in Wall Street battles, Mark Baum (Carell) vows to uncover the corruption that allowed the system to become rogue.
Bale’s Michael Burry, a doctor turned broker, has an analytical brilliance about the pending financial doom which goes unrecognized, even thwarted, when his bosses are threatened. Annoyingly, his character beats on drums in his basement while projecting when the housing market will crash. Reflecting on subprime loans and duplicitous securities created to bundle high-risk mortgages in such a complicated way, Burry understands that professionals as well as the average investor have no clue what the mortgages represent or who owns them.
As the debacle is in free-fall, Baum is incredulous that his team has bet against their own umbrella entity, Morgan Stanley. The imploding financial system caused by corporate greed and deceit has even fooled him.
Both Carell and Bale give some of the best performances of their careers. Yet cinematic clips jump from one scene to the next, attempting to evoke the financial crisis of 2008, with rap and other distracting scenes overlying the depressing subject of capitalism gone amuck. Ryan Gosling narrates by talking directly to the camera a la Kevin Spacey in “House of Cards”, one of my least favorite film conceits.
The demented and corrupt circus of Wall Street can only exist based upon a society which blindingly trusts them. Even the “good guys” (Baum and Burry) are ultimately motivated by making obscene amounts of money. Isn’t that what society tells us we have to do, in order to be valued? It’s sick and the whole thing has started up again, “The Big Short” informs us before the ending credits. Neither regulators, nor banks, nor the public seem to care enough about the damage of a cycle of boom and bust to really do anything about it. They – we – smell money. Ultimately a bleak repeat of history.
Not as good as “Wolf on Wall Street” or the superior “Margin Call” but we need reminding: we are all being duped.