By the time the housing market crashed in 2007, I was unable to be a homeowner mostly because I was in my junior year of high school. And school didn’t make life easier by preparing us in learning about how to balance check books or apply for mortgages or credit cards, at least not in NY at that time. However, I do remember the chaos that was a result of millions losing their homes and jobs – it was a rough time for all, even those beyond the Atlantic ocean. Luckily, The Big Short as adapted from the novel of the same name by author Michael Lewis by co-writers Charles Randolph and Adam McKay, the latter taking up directing as well, add a bit of humor in following the events leading up to the crisis and those betting against or shorting the market for a crash to profit off of.
Randolph and McKay fill their screenplay with Wall Street jargon, insider terms and mumbo jumbo that’s a headache to comprehend but the point isn’t to confuse you or frustrate whoever is watching. The premise is simple enough that’s highly engaging once the wheels start turning. Terms like subprime loans, collateralized debt obligations (CDO’s), and credit default swaps are used often at nauseum but McKay’s genius places recognizable celebrity figures like actress Margot Robbie, chef Anthony Bourdain, singer Selena Gomez, and economist Richard Thaler breaking the 4th wall to dumb down these terms, so no one gets lost in the translation.
The housing market is easy enough to understand when you have Anthony Bourdain using seafood stew in his 4th wall explanation. Or Margot Robbie in a bathtub drinking champagne. Starting in 2005, two years before the crash, The Big Short follows 3 separate groups as they learn the housing market is in a bubble on the fringe of collapsing. The first is Scion Capital run by hedge fund manager Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale). Dr. Burry is a numbers expert who listens to heavy metal and works barefoot in cargo shorts and a t-shirt. He rarely raises his voice or looks like he’s in a state of discomfort.
The second group The Big Short focuses on is FrontPoint Partners lead by Mark Baum (Steve Carell), operating under an umbrella of Morgan Stanley. Baum and his team are notified of the eventual market collapse and decide to buy swaps from Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) who learns of Burry’s analysis early on and decides to get into the market himself. And lastly, Randolph and McKay’s screenplay focuses on Brownfield Capital, owned by investors Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) who for the sake of dramatization by chance learn of the bubble after a meeting with Chase bank, when in reality the two investors learn of Vennett’s plan through word of mouth and publications (as explained by Shipley in a perfectly timed 4th wall break).
Now that the confusing and convoluted part is out of the way, The Big Short packs a combination of heavyweight punches between the numbers. Meaning, the films true emotional center is on the American people suffering by the greed and unchecked corruption of those on Wall Street. The point isn’t to care about these hedge fund managers who short the housing market, exposing the corruption in the process, and making billions as a result. They’re antiheros doing what anyone would do if given the opportunity.
About halfway through when Mark Baum and his associates Porter Collins (Hamish Linklater), and Danny Moses (Rafe Spall) take a business trip to Florida to visit communities, they come across vacant homes with piles of past due bills, for sale signs and growing home prices. One of these homes that Porter and Danny knock on the front door of is answered by a man who regularly pays his rent on time. Confused by their concerns for him to contact the landlord, the look on both Danny and the man’s face says more despite very little information given to the man. What makes the impact of this scene hit so hard happens a short time later when two mortgage brokers (Max Greenfield and Billy Magnussen) brag about taking advantage of hard working people to line their pockets who simply want to own a home.
This unnamed man and his son is who The Big Short is all about, putting a face to all the faceless who are mentioned in passing who have no idea of the fallout that’s about to come from shorting the housing market. The millions of Americans who lost jobs and homes and all it took was a few frames by McKay and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd to prove the point.
From the moment this man and his son make their brief and sincere appearance, their worry and confusion becomes the motivation for Mark Baum and his associates to short the corruption, shifting The Big Short into a story of humanity and a commentary on the very foundation that the so called ‘American Dream’ is built upon. All it takes is someone like Dr. Michael Burry to study the numbers to change the system. At first, motivations are to profit off the crash, shorting the market, but as the 130 minute film dives deeper into a web of tangled weeds, the mood changes to expose the truth, shining a light on the unknown darkness.
As a whole, the ensemble cast from the smallest of roles to the main actors fit right into their dramatized counterparts. There are times where Rudolph and McKay give their surface level antiheros some dimension to them, especially to Carell’s Mark Baum. As the pseudo narrator, Gosling brings much needed levity to the chaos inducing environment whereas Brad Pitt give a more somber approach to the situation. While all of the main characters are out to profit, McKay goes for a Robin Hood angle but only achieves part of the work in arming the poor with vital information. The unofficial epilogue shows what happens after the masses lose everything – they don’t get the billions of dollars or the bailouts from the government.
That’s reserved for the banks leaving immigrants and the poor to shoulder the blame for the collapse.
Throughout the runtime, quick cuts from editor Hank Corwin and fast dialogue keeps the pace moving, only slowing down using the 4th wall breaks to take a much needed breather to rest the brain from absorbing all of the information.
The Big Short is a shock to the system of uncomfortable truths. Less about the hedge fund managers speaking complete gibberish for 2 hours and more about the little guy who’s in over their head, struggling to make a living, getting bombarded by con-artists and sneaky salespeople who pretend to make dreams a reality. If The Big Short could be described using one word, that word would be frustrating. As a whole, McKay balances the subject matter with well-placed humor and a searing score from composer Nicholas Britell. What’s frustrating is the truth, how difficult it is to live a comfortable life in a modern world and live happily without having to worry about shady business practices that are out to cheat the system and make money off of someone failing.
Screenplay By: Charles Randolph & Adam McKay
Directed By: Adam McKay
Music By: Nicholas Britell
Cinematography: Barry Ackroyd
Starring: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, John Magaro, Finn Wittrock
Edited By: Hank Corwin
Release Date: December 11, 2015
Running Time: 2 Hours 10 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 89%
Based On: The Big Short by Michael Lewis