By Marc S. Sanders
Ever since Adam McKay’s The Big Short was released in 2015, it has remained a favorite film of mine. I watch it at least once every year. McKay’s script with Charles Randolph, adapted from the book by Michael Lewis, is enormously funny but also realistically frightening.
The film shows how America’s housing market crashed in the first decade of the 21st Century. Mortgage backed securities never failed in history until now, and no one anywhere, especially the banks, ever believed a crash would occur, but it did. Only a select few people like Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale) and Jared Vennet (Ryan Gosling) foresaw what no one else could imagine, and thus they took advantage of it by making enormous betting transactions against the housing market. To say you need a strong stomach for this kind of investment is a serious understatement.
Burry is the first one to realize that the country as a whole will default on their mortgages once their interest rates go up in 2007. He represents Scion Capital and invests billions of dollars against the mortgage backed investments. Now he watches for the next two years while the capital at Scion declines into negative digits and drowns out the frustration with death metal music. Bale is fascinating as Burry who has a brilliant mind, but he lacks social skills.
Vennet gets wind of Burry’s discovery and sells the idea to Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his team of representatives. Vennett narrates how it all played out in the market; how ratings agencies gave triple A rankings to bonds made up of worthless backed securities. McKay wisely has Vennett introduce celebrities like Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez to break down the vast complexities of everything. Robbie in a bathtub. Gomez playing black jack. It’s hilarious and relatable. Gosling is great. A great scene is his selling presentation which includes a metaphoric prop of a Jenga tower. Vennet has no qualms about collecting premiums as the rest of the country is going down. He’s profiting, and why not? Big banks have been doing it for years.
Carell is spectacular as well as Mark Baum. He has a heart, but he’s an angry individual. It sickens him to make money off this short buy, but it’s the responsible action to take for the benefit of his own clients. Mark also suffers from his brother’s suicide. McKay allows just enough time for this to draw out the misery of this character. Carell should have gotten an Oscar nomination at least. Baum is a guy with no filter as he confronts authoritarian parties throughout the film. He’s a hero really, but he’s not a guy I’d ever want to be left in a room with either.
An additional story arc comes from two young guys (Finn Wittrock & John Magaro) who also uncover this opportunity. They enlist Brad Pitt as a recluse who get them into the arena of big traders. These kids who started their investment company in a garage are great as well. Another party who came out of nowhere to uncover what no one else saw.
McKay assembled a magnificent blend of actors for these unusual characters who always hid behind their computer monitors. He directs with a lighthearted approach having his characters breaking the 4th wall at times to explain what all of this means in the simplest terms.
As simple as McKay makes it with his humor, this was a terrible, terrible tragedy putting millions of people out of work and owners losing their homes. Even renters lost their homes. Pay your rent but it means nothing if your landlord isn’t paying his mortgage. McKay tragically shows this outcome.
It’s terrible to imagine, but it’s a major downfall of the American economy. When the country, is doing well, while paying short term low interest rates, no one concerns themselves with what could all go away in an instant. It’s a vicious cycle, and the only funny thing about it all is that the supposedly most brilliant investors will naively allow this to happen over and over again.
The Big Short is one of the best films made in the last 20 years.