Leading up to the financial meltdown of 2008, this new econo-medy treats the then-imminent crisis like a tsunami about to make landfall, and only a handful of people are standing on the beach to see the water receding from the shore. It didn’t happen overnight, though it sure felt like that to most of us. Suddenly, stock portfolios shriveled up and the housing market collapsed on top of the flimsy sub-prime loans that were supporting it. But still, how did the banks not see this coming? Was nobody else paying attention? Michael Lewis calls BS in a big and detailed way in his book “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine”, and director Adam McKay (the “Anchorman” movies), who adapted it into this funny and informative movie with co-writer Charles Randolph, portrays the participating lenders in roughly the same light that Martin Scorsese chronicled the demise of stock-swindling millionaire Jordan Belfort in ‘”The Wolf of Wall Street”. Only this story, as you probably know, ends with a massive government bailout instead of jail time.
Earlier this year, Ramin Bahrani’s potent thriller “99 Homes” viewed the fallout from the front lines of the real estate market, as a predatory broker profited on an unprecedented number of foreclosures in Orlando. “The Big Short” takes place on the other side of the bubble, where Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale, playing the only principal character whose name wasn’t altered for the movie), a socially awkward but brilliant hedge fund manager, makes an offer that the investment bankers simply can’t refuse: sell him tens of millions in default credit swaps, which will payoff only if the mortgage market completely fails. In the meantime, he’ll be responsible for millions in annual premiums. Easy money, they’re thinking. High-fives all around.
Default credit swaps? Don’t worry if you’re not a financial analyst, “The Big Short” breaks the fourth wall on several occasions to put things like collateralized debt obligations into laymen’s terms, mainly via hotshot Deutsche Bank trader/narrator Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), and with the assistance of Selena Gomez, Anthony Bourdain and Margot Robbie in a few random and amusing sidebars. Vennett catches wind of Burry’s strategy and strikes a deal with another fund manager named Mark Baum (Steve Carrell) to get in on the action before the bubble bursts. Also on the scent are fledgling “garage band” traders (John Magaro, Finn Wittrock), who seek the help of retired investment guru Ben Rickert (co-producer Brad Pitt) to get them a seat at the big boy table. For Pitt’s character, the victory feels pyrrhic, as he interrupts his protégés’ celebratory dance with the sobering statistics from the financial catastrophe on which they’re profiting. But out of this ensemble, which is worthy of any director’s Christmas wish list, Bale is the most intriguing as the enigmatic bohemian/ex-neuorolgist/metalhead Burry, who toils away to Metallica’s “Eye of the Beholder”, “Master of Puppets” and Pantera’s “By Demons Be Driven”, a thematically appropriate playlist to express the anger that’s brimming beneath the film’s thin veil of humorous didacticism.