The Big Short

Movie Information

The Story: Fact-based, absurd, farcical and very bitter dark comedy about the few who made money off the collapse of the housing market by betting against it. The Lowdown: A brilliant, blistering, angry and very awkwardly funny look at a tragic situation. A stylish, whirligig farce of a tragedy. Unique and uncomfortably essential.
Score:

Genre: Fact-Based Absurdist Black Comedy
Director: Adam McKay (The Other Guys)
Starring: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Karen Gillan, Marisa Tomei, Melissa Leo, Finn Wittrock, John Magaro
Rated: R

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I’ve seen The Big Short twice now, and I still have no idea if it’s as good as it is in spite of all those puerile, self-indulgent Will Ferrell movies that director/co-writer Adam McKay made or because of them. Much as I don’t like those movies — and much as I do like this one — I’m inclined to believe it’s because of them, if only in the way they inform The Big Short‘s deliberate artifice and seemingly anarchic structure. Regardless, McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph have taken Michael Lewis’ book about the 2008 housing collapse and turned it into the bleakest, angriest, absurdest comedy imaginable, a film that is at once bitterly funny and maddening. It’s a kind of epic tragedy bathed in cynicism where the heroes are … well, not heroes. It’s a story where only the film’s playful attitude — and that fact that it lets us in on its black joke — keeps it palatable. And only just. Then you reflect that all this is (give or take) true, and the joke is less funny.

 

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The basic premise is that, long before the housing bubble burst, its demise was spotted by a few outsider oddballs who realized that it would be possible to make money — and lots of it — by betting the big banking and stock brokerages that the housing market would indeed collapse. These consist of Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a one-eyed social disaster with a penchant for drumming to heavy metal records and a knack for spotting things others miss — not to mention the obsessiveness necessary to read through thousands of pages of loans. Then there’s Mark Baum (Steve Carell), a stock trader with anger issues (among other issues). He is tipped off to the idea by banker (and the film’s narrator) Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who, having heard of Burry’s plan, sees this as revenge on his bosses. Baum wants to believe this because it fits his image of banks as the source of all evil.

 

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Finally, there are a pair of greenhorn entrepreneurs — Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley — who literally stumble across the information in the form of Vennett’s failed pitch lying on a table in the lobby of Morgan Chase just as they’re being cordially thrown out of the building. Being neither savvy nor moneyed enough to take advantage of the idea, they turn to an old acquaintance, Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), a retired banker-turned-neo-hippie-health-food-nut. He sees the chance immediately, wants no part of this world, but relents in order to help these would-be big shots.

 

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All of that is set-up. The film itself is concerned with wittily — and wickedly — explaining just what all this means and how it works. McKay offers us a look into a world of finance that’s grounded in fraud, deceit and arrogance. It’s a world kept going by sleight of hand and the well-founded belief that the general public doesn’t understand any of this — and really doesn’t want to. Occasionally bringing in personalities (like Margot Robbie “in a bathful of bubbles”) to break it down for the viewer helps some — and the cleverness of it certainly helps keep it “fun” — but the truth is that all this can be hard to process. (A second viewing helps.) What is finally not hard to understand is the enormity of the absurd spectacle of avarice, stupidity and willful blindness on display. Sure, we like the fact that McKay and company take us into their confidence, so we feel more like we’re in on the grotesque joke. But it’s not comforting, nor is it meant to be. However, it’s essential. Rated R for pervasive language and some sexuality/nudity.

 

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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14 thoughts on “The Big Short

  1. Dino

    Agree 10000% (get it? That’s WAY too many percentage points) I had to watch it twice, and as maddening as it is, it does end up very semi-enjoyable. I really liked the way they HAD to take short-cuts in the telling yet, at the same time, admitted to the convenient placing of the facts in order to tell a simpler story.

      • The Real World

        Ok, ugh. I largely found the film annoying and disjointed. Here’s why: I spent a decade in the financial industry (in the 80’s) in NYC, read the book this movie is based on and have seen/read multiple interviews and articles of both M. Lewis, the author and the real M. Burry, the lead character. Yes, the entire subject and players interest me.

        The Good: that the subject matter is being put forth and with a big push. The ugly reality is nothing much has changed in Govt oversight or the financial industry and because of that, at some point, there will be an economic event that will make the last seem like kindergarten. LOTS of people know this, by the way. There are various websites and blogs that often discuss that eventuality.

        To get the best sense of the scale and randomness of a large amount of debt/wagers in place (then and now) by financial institutions — focus on the description provided by Selena Gomez and the PhD guy sitting at the blackjack table. That should scare the pants off you. But, this is even better. It’s an outstanding piece of work that is WELL worth the time, is easy to understand and utterly riveting! I can’t recommend it highly enough. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/warning/

        The Bad: I feel the writers and director did a dopey job of it. They tried to make it hip with bits of rap music, flashed images of random celebrities (Britney Spears?) and the lady in the bubble bath defining CDO’s? Good grief to all of that and the attempted humor. All those aspects flopped. (Exceptions are the sarcasm and bluntness; that is very Wall St and appeals to my sense of humor)

        The Frontline program referenced above and Inside Job below are proof-positive that the story can be told well without all the lame attempts trying to relate to the audience in some pop culture way.

        Couple of FYI’s….Michael Burry is actually quite articulate, unlike Christian Bale’s portrayal. He also realized a few years ago that he probably has Asperger’s Syndrome, after his son was diagnosed with it. Which would explain plenty about his personality.

        The IMPORTANT: Jeff Fobes, editor of this paper, made a statement on a comment thread a couple months ago to the effect: “freedom of speech is a big deal in this country.” I then quipped, “if only that were true” but didn’t elaborate. He may have thought me a smart-aleck but I knew this movie was coming and decided to define what I meant here. And I hope to heck this bugs some of you readers as much as it bugs me!

        Continued……..

        • The Real World

          Michael Burry was asked to write an Op-Ed for the New York Times in early 2010. It created a stir because he calls it straight and doesn’t bow down to the big dogs. The guy is whip-smart and has an intense work ethic so I feel he’s earned the right to be a bit cocky. Plus we need courageous people like him in this country.
          http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/04/opinion/04burry.html?_r=0

          In June 2012 I learned he gave the commencement address to the UCLA Economics Dept. so I watched it online. My jaw hit the floor when he mentions that 2 weeks after that Op-Ed published, the Feds decide to audit all 6 of his defunct investment funds. There were no existing problems, the funds were closed and the investors had received their money back with a very handsome return. No, it was that he dared call out our Federal Govt for not doing their job! (Let’s be honest here; they’re actually complicit. And forget about blaming one political party or the other – on a national level, they are mostly 2 sides of the same coin. Although many are yet to realize this.)

          So, they harass Burry for one year, thousands of hours, and cause him to spend 1 million dollars in legal and accounting fees!! Jeff, if you’re reading, whereas certainly freedom of speech IS important to us citizens, that outrageous treatment of Michael Burry cured me of ever believing again that our Govt feels the same way about it. They’ve basically guaranteed his silence.

          Video of his speech: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1CLhqjOzoyE You can also find a text version online.

          Inside Job is another very good film about these matters: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1645089/?ref_=nv_sr_1

  2. Me

    Is this not opening Christmas day? It seems to have disappeared from the schedule, at least here it has.

      • Me

        It was scheduled for here on the 25th, but now it’s gone from the schedule.

        • The Real World

          No, Mr Me — I watched it TODAY at the Carolina! It is there.
          Remember, the internet is your friend, go look.

          • Ken Hanke

            He might remember this from this week’s “Weekly Reeler” — “For whatever reason (I guess to escape the rush on Friday), Adam McKay’s The Big Short opens Wednesday (or Tuesday night really) at Carmike 10, The Carolina and Regal Biltmore Grande.” Or even just this at the bottom of the review — “Starts Wednesday at Carmike 10, Carolina Cinemas, Epic of Hendersonville, Regal Biltmore Grande.”

  3. Edwin Arnaudin

    I finally watched Curtis Hanson’s HBO original movie Too Big To Fail, which provides a good complementary angle to the economic collapse that’s alluded to in The Big Short.

  4. Steven

    (OK, I have yet to see The Hateful Eight, but I doubt very much that that is going to change things.)

    So I can assume you’ve seen Carol

  5. T.rex

    Outstanding, look forward to the next Adam McKay “drama”. Looks like I will have to adjust my top ten list. What a disgusting world the stock market is.

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