Movie Review: “The Big Short” — Capitalism Gone Wild, Made Entertaining

The Big Short is a deftly sardonic piece of doomsday economic diagnosis that is as entertaining as it is alarming.

The Big Short, directed by Adam McKay, Screening at Kendall Square, Somerville Theatre, AMC Boston, and other cinemas around New England.

Christian Bale in a scene from "The Big Short."

Christian Bale in a scene from “The Big Short.”

By Paul Dervis

It’s hard to believe that the American mortgage crisis of seven short years ago could be turned into an enjoyable, often comic, and always compelling film in so short a time. And without a doubt there are many of us who are still dealing with the bitter scars left by that frightful episode in crazy capitalism. But for the rest us The Big Short is a deftly sardonic piece of doomsday economic diagnosis that grabs the audience’s attention from the first frame and never lets go.

Christian Bale, who has made as many bad movies (Exodus: Gods and Kings, Batman Begins) as excellent ones (The Fighter and American Psycho, where he played another Wall Street character) portrays Michael Burry, a quirky misfit of a stock-picking genius. This barefoot, one-eyed former medical doctor has an uncanny feel for the direction the market is headed — and has made countless hundreds of millions for his firm. So much in fact, that his boss lets him gamble on a wild scheme that is all or nothing — and that no one else in the industry seems to see as an opportunity. Burry is betting on the collapse of the housing market, based what he sees as the avaricious blindness and perfidy of major U.S. banks and the mortgage industry. In essence, he is predicting that something will happen that has never happened before — the housing industry will flatline.

Mark Baum (Steve Carell) is another whacked-out trader. He is highly successful in terms of his business but grapples with manic depression, a condition brought on by the apparent suicide of his brother, who was begging for help when Baum was too busy to listen. He and Baum’s team of outcasts are alerted to the mega-mega-bucks Ponzi scheme, which is based on millions of bad mortgages. The man who delivers the news of impending doom (the structure is sure to topple) is the film’s narrator, Jared Vennett. He is looking for investors who will reap millions from the coming Armageddon.

You see, Vannett (Ryan Gosling) received a phone call that was actually a wrong number. But, before the callers realized their mistake, he heard about Burry’s attempt to corner the insurance market on all the bad loans. Vannett’s interest was peaked. After crunching the numbers and realizing that Burry was right (as a popular radio ad proclaims, “It’s not if the market will collapse, it’s when”), he is in.

Add to this mix of outsiders two young investors from Colorado, Jamie and Charlie, who took a hundred grand in capital and turned it into thirty million. Now they want to go big time and head to New York with their loot. But a measly thirty million? The financial powers-that-be laugh at them and tell to come back once they have accumulated half a billion. While waiting for another rejection, they pick up a prospectus containing Burry’s ideas and bring it to a Boulder neighbor of theirs, a former major player on Wall Street, now a dropout, named Ben Rickert (who is played with shaggy dog charm by Brad Pitt…a tribute to many a Robert Redford character).

Well, the inevitable fall-off-the-cliff happens, but what these mavericks were not counting on was the devilish enterprise of the criminal masterminds at our major banks and financial houses. Even as truckloads of junk mortgages were defaulting, the major players pretended that everything was just peachy keen. Kicked off by America’s collapse, the global economic structure was headed to the ditch, but these pampered, superrich crooks — for the sake of maintaining profit and power — were lying about it.

In so many ways The Big Short could have been a bore. It throws around so many numbers and has so many different players that it would have been easy to leave the viewers behind, scratching their heads in confusion. It is difficult at times to keep all the characters straight, and the economic moves and counter-moves keep changing, making it hard to figure out just what each new flimflam signifies. It is a tribute to the director, screenwriters, cast, and crew that most of the tangled narrative is clear. This is partly because even when the corrupt contortions become hard to follow, they are spun with a chastening irony — there is always a sense that something important is at stake. Also, even as global capitalism is crumbling, the film keeps its penetrating eye on the personal backgrounds of its fascinating characters.

Director Adam McKay seems like an odd choice to take on this material. He will be forever linked to farceur Will Ferrell, having directed the Anchorman franchise as well heading Talladega Nights. His background is in stand-up comedy, but this weakness for jokes may have helped him this time around — he takes what could have been a rather dry subject (white collar economic subterfuge) and uses gallows humor to make it accessible to the masses. He also makes superb use of an artificial device — having characters talk directly to the camera. The pacing of the film is, to steal another title, fast and furious. Also, the cast was uniformly excellent, and not just the lead players.

So many films come out in December hoping that their special effects or their heavyweight casts will sweep them to the Oscars. Well, here’s one film that would get my nomination even if it came out in February…. how rare is that?

Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for his work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011’s The Righteous Tithe.

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