I watched the big Wall Street crash of 2008 in shock. I had absolutely no understanding of what was happening. I have a 401K plan that I pay little attention to and never entertained ‘playing the market’. Apparently bankers and insurance companies found a way to fleece people, got insanely rich, got away with it for a long time and then the house of cards came tumbling down. Some people never recovered. The banks and insurance companies did and are now looking a new way to do the same old things all over again.
The Big Short, based on the novel by Michael Lewis, tells the story of a group of Wall Street speculators that catch on early what is happening in the housing market and start laying down bets on its collapse which would then make them all rich. It begins with a savant hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale) whose clients think he’s crazy when he starts going from bank to bank setting up Credit Default Swaps (CDS). The bankers laugh in his face! But when intense trader Jared Vennett (a wonderful Ryan Gosling) hears about this he does his own investigating and sees what Burry sees. The whole housing market is about to collapse. He then goes to workaholic hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his team who take a lot of convincing but ultimately agree and they start setting up Credit default Swaps of their own. Seperately, 2 young investors (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock) catch wind of what Vennett is up to and want in but they are too small potatoes so they enlist a retired paranoid banker, Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to help them. What is so crazy is how long it takes for the market to actually collapse. It amazes the characters as well. Burry sees the problem in 2005. Everyone was so blinded by the money they were making and doing everything they could just to keep it coming they refused to see what was obvious. When Burry’s clients rebel and want to sell he basically refuses to. He knew it was just a matter of time.
When you describe it, this does not sound like a movie you would want to see. Here is how the world economy went belly up and everyone lost their money and this bunch of yahoos were smart enough to make a fortune off of it. But director and co-writer Adam McKay keeps the film moving at a fast clip and the performances are sharp and spot on. McKay is mostly known for his collaboration with Will Farrell (Anchorman, Talledga Nights) and his comedic touch helps when dealing with such dense, complicated material.
Smart, funny cameos by Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez are great and really do help explain some of the more complicated plot points like ‘synthetic CDOs’. What madness!
It’s a comedy about a real tragedy. As Alan Alda’s pompous TV producer says in Woody Allen’s Crimes And Misdemeanors (1989), “Tragedy plus Time equals Comedy.” Ain’t it the truth.