Much is made in The Big Short, both in jest and in deadly earnestness, about the impenetrability of the 2007-08 economic meltdown it chronicles.
To be sure, arcane financial terms like “credit default swaps” and “bespoke tranche opportunity” are hard to grasp, even for people who use them. Fumbling in the dark is a big part of what the movie is about.
Director Adam McKay uses amusingly instructive celebrity cameos — including a beauty in a bubble bath and a beast in chef’s garb — to make swallowing the narrative medicine easy.
When you get right down to it, though, The Big Short is actually pretty simple: a small number of maverick investors, “outsiders and weirdos” played by Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, Christian Bale and Brad Pitt, foresaw the subprime mortgage collapse of 2007 and sought to profit from it.
They “shorted” the mortgage bubble, betting against the U.S. economy — and thus the global one. They profited from the misery of a multitude of homeowners and small investors.
Unlucky little guys and gals don’t get much screen time in The Big Short, one of the film’s few faults. McKay, best known for such comedies as Anchorman and Step Brothers, wants us to root for people who would be villains or dupes in other money movies, such as 99 Homes and Inside Job.
People like Gosling’s venal bank trader Jared Vennett, Steve Carell’s harried hedge fund boss Mark Baum, Bale’s barefoot investment manager Mike Burry and Pitt’s Yoda-ish money mentor Ben Rickert, all composites drawn from the book by Moneyball’s Michael Lewis. (McKay co-wrote the screenplay with Charles Randolph.)
The really neat feat of The Big Short is getting us to care about these dollar-hungry sharks and other erstwhile profiteers, and to laugh at their desperate dealings, even if we don’t always understand what it is they’re doing (a second viewing really helps). A couple of them even have semblances of a conscience, like people in a sci-fi alien invasion movie who can’t get the masses to understand that disaster looms.
The film also warns that the greed, stupidity and dirty deals behind the subprime mortgage debacle persist and could easily cause more mayhem.
As Led Zeppelin’s darkly prophetic “When The Levee Breaks” sounds on the rock-and-rap soundtrack, we’re advised that the above-mentioned “bespoke tranche opportunity” is the 2015 buzz phrase to fear, if a repeat of recent history is to be avoided.
Which is all the more reason to watch The Big Short again.