When I was in junior high school, my English teacher walked into the classroom one day, placed a pencil on his desk and pointed at it, saying, “All right, give me at least a page about this before the bell rings — and it had better be interesting.” We thought he was nuts, but the lesson was a valuable one: When faced with a mundane, dull topic, use your creativity to find any possible angle to hold your readers’ attention.
Director Adam McKay uses a similar approach in his 2008 financial-meltdown movie “The Big Short.” McKay takes us deep into the world of mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations — I sense your eyes glazing over — but makes convoluted financial fraud feel as entertaining and zany as any of his previous comedies such as “Talladega Nights” or “Anchorman.”
With Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling and Steve Carell in the cast, McKay could have made a film about mortuary workers and it would’ve put butts in seats. In “The Big Short,” the cast get to play a colorful collection of misfits based on real people from the financial sector’s fringe — those heretical few who noticed the housing market was based on rigged figures, and bet against it.
Bale transforms himself yet again, this time into Michael Burry, a doctor-turned-investor who may have Asperger’s syndrome and who pounds out his frustrations by practicing drums to Metallica songs. Carell is wired and shouty as Mark Baum, a hedge fund manager who’s also the film’s conscience: Due to a devastating personal loss, Baum has resolved to work in an ethical way, which — this being Wall Street — leaves him fuming most of the time. Gosling is fully in type, slick and suave, as the film’s cynical narrator, Jared Vennett, an arrogant trader who’s only in it for the money but who has to slum it with the geeks because they’re the only people who believe his apocalyptic predictions about the housing market. Pitt goes full nerd, hiding behind some naff glasses and a bushy beard as former ace trader Ben Rickert, who’s out of the game and living off the grid.
“The Big Short” is based on hard facts from the 2010 book by Michael Lewis, an investigative journalist who focuses on finance. Lewis also authored “Moneyball” and is clearly enamored of those who can manipulate data for an edge. He is also very good at highlighting the modern tendency to create illusory realities based on spin.
McKay uses every trick in the book to hold our attention, making sure there’s a jarringly loud scene at a shooting range or a strip club every 10 minutes. Credit default swaps aren’t exactly a “sexy” topic, so McKay has actress Margot Robbie walk us though the topic while she takes a bubble bath — one of many random cutaway gags. He also repeatedly breaks the fourth wall with snarky asides. Gosling turns straight to the camera during a discussion about subprime loans and says, “Does it make you feel bored? Or stupid? It’s supposed to. Wall Street loves to use confusing terms to make you think only they can do what they do.”
Some critics had a problem with “The Big Short” because at the end of the day, we’re still rooting for people who made an insane amount of money from the collapse of the global financial system, while the rest of us got austerity measures, home foreclosures and lost jobs. The film’s point, however, is that they are the closest thing to good guys you’ll find: the press, the federal regulators and the credit ratings agencies were as compromised as anyone else.
While the film is mandatory viewing for any Hillary Clinton supporters — she has earned $11 million over the past two years for speeches she gave to banks and other wealthy benefactors — its closing lines are almost eerily prescient of the rise of Donald Trump. “In a few years,” says Baum, “people will be doing what they always do when the economy tanks: blaming immigrants and poor people.”