Or rather, how are they going to f**k us again? That’s the question that looms at the end of Adam McKay’s on-screen expose of the most reckless, arrogant, dishonest game of financial jenga in the history of global markets. Adapted from Michael Lewis’ best-seller, and making the most of its ensemble cast, The Big Short does not disappoint in showing us just how low some people will sink, and just how much money can be won if you back the right horse and stick to your guns.
The film follows three main story arcs in the build-up to the 2007-08 financial crash:
Eccentric hedge fund manager Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale)
Angry hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carrell)
Eager young investors Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock)
Burry, a former doctor turned money man, runs Scion Capital, a hedge fund that specialises in value-investing, the art of picking out undervalued companies and profiting from their exponential growth. The fund is a success, mainly due to Burry’s insatiable appetite for knowledge and attention to detail. His investors love him because he picks stocks no else sees, and in the process makes them oodles of cash. Fund management is a fickle world though, and their attitude towards Burry begins to sour when he proposes a simple yet strange idea; what if the entire market is rigged? What if the banks are lying to everyone? What if the entire US housing market is about to implode and ruin millions upon millions of lives?
This is the premise upon which our protagonists pivot; the US housing market is not as stable as it seems. The world believes that house prices can only go up, so everyone and their dog has a mortgage, provided by the banks, who bundle all the mortgages up into big blocks and trade them around. It’s essentially one big bet, and 99% of global investor think it can only go one way. For the remaining 1% however, there is no bet, no gamble; for them the lights in the casino have just come on, and all they can see is the blind leading the blind from the blackjack tables to the roulette wheels.
Carrell excels as Baum, showcasing all characteristics of a guy who’s been in the game a while, seen it, done it and knows better than you, as a result he is the ‘moral voice’ in the room. I use the term ‘moral’ loosely, Baum and others are still profiting from the loss of others, and whilst millions will lose homes, they will be able to buy mansions. They aren’t the problem though, they’re simply occupying the opposite side of a bet, all the time screaming “It’s a fix! It’s a fix!”, so I suppose they can be excused, that’s just capitalism right? Right.
Gellar and Shipley are the small fry here, they’re fund only has $30 million (!?). What they represent though, and prove, is that it wasn’t just super-smart finance guys and economists that saw this coming (for the record, not many from those groups did). What sets them apart is that they’re young and’ haven’t ever worked in high-finance, which means they’re not greedy and can look at the situation more objectively than most. An honorable mention must go here to Brad Pitt, who despite being unrecognizable with an end-of-days style beard, acts as Gellar and Shipleys’ sort-of mentor, a wise guide through the banking system who helps them to place their bets and cash their chips.
The Big Short is a humorous, stark look at the financial crash, and whilst it’s hard not to laugh at times (narrator Ryan Gosling makes sure of that), it can be also be difficult to watch. Not difficult in the sense of understanding what’s going on, the director and writers have done a magnificent job of simplifying very complex financial instruments, to the extent that I’d recommend this to anyone. It’s difficult to watch because it tells the story so well, and shows just how badly the public were conned by the banks. The consequences were so catastrophic, I can only hope more of these films are produced, more books written, that force these institutions to become more transparent. Have had previous works Moneyball and The Blind Side also turned into successful films, it’s rumoured that more of author Michael Lewis’ work is being taken up by studios, and I for one will be among the first in line for any future releases.
Dir: Adam McKay
Scr: Charles Randolph, Adam McKay, Michael Lewis (book)
Cast: Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling, John Magaro, Brad Pitt, Finn Wittrock
Prd: Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Arnon Milchan, Brad Pitt
DOP: Barry Ackroyd
Run time: 130 mins
The Big Short is out now on Digital, DVD and Blu-Ray.