By Paul Sawchuk
We’re angry. I’m angry. You’re angry. It was recently reported that the wealthiest 62 people in the world own as much as half the world’s entire population does. It’s sickening. “Greed is good”, Gordon Gecko’s mantra from 1987s Wall Street sounds more like the sniveling evil of corporate control than ever.
The Big Short, directed by Adam McKay and starring Steve Carell, Christian Bale and Brad Pitt, shares our anger and even revels in it.
The year is 2005. Markets around the world are generally showing solid profits, and up is the only direction they can possibly go, despite the recent tech bubble burst. Wall Street investment banker and numbers whiz Michael Burry (Bale), notices something, though. When digging into the big banks investment portfolios with the housing market, there are a lot of bad mortgages in them. In fact, almost 90% of the mortgages are not as good as they’re touted to be. In his role, he disdainfully sees an opportunity to make his investors money by shorting (i.e. betting against the success) of the entire housing market, which he sees is going to crash in 2007.
The Big Short is based on a true story. As audacious as it sounds, this all happened. Saavy investment bankers caught on that the housing market was forming an investment bubble and was going to crash in 2007. So, they bet against it in a big “fuck you” to the banks with hopes of screaming “I told you so” in the future.
As others like Mark Baum (Carell) and Jared Vennet (Gosling) catch on, the big US banks’ corruption and flat out lying and fraudulent behaviour during 2005-2008 is revealed. Our protagonists, who saw the bursting bubble coming, may just win but at the expense of homeowners and regular people across the United States. It was the beginning of the erosion of the middle class in the United States.
Vennet, another sleazy banker-type who, by virtue of seeing the crash coming, acting as the film’s narrator, tells us that it’s not wrong to feel stupid when trying to figure out how big banks and wall street work. We’re supposed to. The architects of Wall Street have designed it that way in order to keep us in the dark so we can be fodder for their shoddy investments.
Adam McKay’s sole job as director, using the original account by Michael Lewis of the same title as his source, is to bring us in on the game. He wants us to know, without condescension (unlike how the banks treat us) just how we’ve been mistreated and gambled on. The Big Short takes brief moments when the terminology comes to a level of insider jargon we’re not meant to understand, and inserts Margot Robbie or Selena Gomez or Anthony Bourdain to assist in simplifying the terminology with easy to understand analogies that leave us infuriated.
McKay’s filmography includes cult classics like Anchorman and its sequel as well as The Other Guys. The Other Guys’ end credits was an essay-like expose on corporate greed post-bubble burst; it was the kind of graphic presentation that fits The Big Short or 2009 best documentary Oscar winner Inside Job, not a Will Ferrel and Mark Wahlburg comedy. But McKay’s interest in the financial crisis was there, and now comes to full fruition with The Big Short. He wants, more than anything, for us to share in what seems to be his own personal vehement anger and anguish at the entire financial institution.
But McKay’s sensibilities as a comedy director are well placed in The Big Short. The Anchorman films are very absurdist comedies, but isn’t the level at which the financial industries in its own way absurd? The wealth that Wall Street investors and big bank bosses hoard and steal and play with is astronomical, with annual bonuses that are higher than anyone working on the ground can hope to achieve in three lifetimes. The Big Short contains some funny moments but couples them with a verite documentary style and lectured cutaways emphasizing the weight and reality of the banker’s arrogance. We just can’t believe how awful the bankers are, how obvious their lies are and how predictable their behaviour is, and worse, that they got away with it. There was no penance and there was nothing you or I could do. They said they were “too big to fail” and we all bought the big lie.
The Big Short is funny, informative, but it will leave you disappointed because the good guys win. We know what happened. The housing market was a bubble. It crashed. Then the US government bailed it out. The Big Short is one of the best films of 2015. And it’s not just because you get to hear Mastodon’s “Blood and Thunder” blaring over massive speakers. That’s just gravy.