Proof that reality itself provides the darkest of comedies
I was 16 on Monday the 15th of September 2008. I was watching the news while getting ready for my second week of college (yes, I was *that* kind of teen). The main headline, which kept being repeated at 15 minute intervals, was that a bank called Lehman Brothers had filed for bankruptcy. I had no idea what this meant, but from the tone of the news reporter and from the footage of people in suits standing outside a fancy-looking building and crying, I could tell this was bad. ‘Bad’, as it turns out was an understatement. In the 8 years since the consequences have, and continue to be, devastating world-wide. But I can admit in full honesty, I had never understood how or why it happened. In fact I wasn’t quite sure what ‘it’ was. That’s where ‘The Big Short’ comes in. This film, set in the three years prior to the financial crisis, takes that serious and complicated sequence of events and turns into a scathing critique that can be understood by all. It forces you to confront the truth, whilst snorting at the true facts – the unfathomable stupidity caused by greed.
In 2005 hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale) discovered that the American economy would be due to crash in late 2007. Why? Because the housing market was incredibly unstable, built on poor foundations of high risk subprime loans. Loans were being given out by banks to people who would never be able to pay them back, which would result in them having to default on their payments. For millions of the American public this would mean losing their homes and having to file for bankruptcy. By predicting this collapse Burry realised he could profit by betting against the banks who refused to believe it.
Trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) hears of Burry’s actions and the prediction it is found upon and discovers it’s all true. A misplaced phone call to a wrong number leads him to hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell). Baum invited Venett to a meeting, also attending by Baum’s three cynical partners. It is then that Venett reveals the level of greed that has occurred, and the inevitable dire consequences the level of fraudulence will have for the general public.
Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) are two young friends and business partners, who have their own independent investment company. Having had some good fortune they have move to New York to play with the big leagues in New York. They are refused meetings with most of the big companies, and laughed at by those who agree to meet them. That’s when they hear of Vennett’s findings and ask for their help of old friend and retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to profit from the impending economic collapse.
It’s incredible really that this domino effect (from Burry finding out the truth, Vennett hearing of it and pushing Baum to invest, with Geller and Shipley hearing of this and making their own investments) lead to his small group making an insane amount of money. What turns this incredibility into incredulity (or impassioned rage at the injustice and insanity) is that these few men saw something thousands of others in simillar jobs/positions couldn’t see or refused to see. That blind ignorance led to millions, maybe even billions, losing their jobs, homes and any possible chance of ever achieving financial stability. Four trillion dollars just disappeared – with no consequences for those whose actions led to it.
The film explores these dark crevices with a whip-smart script that provides a degree understanding that is almost a public service. It’s sardonic and full of wit, yet exposes the true woe of an ultimately depressing story. Somehow the film is wildly entertaining yet immensely informative. It’s perfect Friday night movie entertainment, yet allows for immense reflection. The editing is superb – using breaking of the fourth wall for great effect. Using stars like Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez in cut-aways to explain key concepts is an incredible use of cultural commentary – the banks wanted us to be distracted, ignorant of what was going on, so allowed us to focus on trivialities. Voice Over narration analyse the warped ‘logic’ of a system that was not even understood by the bankers who used it.
The film doesn’t focuses on the suffering of the millions, but instead of the ‘outsiders’ at the centre of the storm. Each actor provides an incredible character performance – from Bale’s eccentric and tortured loner, to Carell’s pessimistic and embittered moral crusader. It’s these characters and those they interact with that make the film so entertaining. The interactions they have are farcical and beyond belief, based on incompetence and corruption – the kicker is that they are all true.
‘The Big Short’ is a contemporaneous disaster movie. We want our ‘heroes’ to succeed, knowing their success spells devastation for the entire nation. The punch-line? We watch it in hindsight, knowing what happens next. That’s the saddest’ joke’ of it all.