Film Review – The Big Short
The Big Short
In addition to being an ardent film lover, I really enjoy financial scandals. (Reading about them, not committing them.) I have an MBA from the University of Washington, and most of our accounting class time was spent talking about people misbehaving with numbers. I graduated in 2008, just in time to witness the world wide economic collapse caused by the bursting of the housing market bubble. To be more accurate, the bubble didn’t cause the meltdown, greed and fraud did, and director Adam McKay confronts the mortgage and financial industry in his new film The Big Short. I’ll be honest with you, I don’t think this is a very good movie, but it’s entertaining and does a really good job of explaining the mortgage crisis. It’s flaws frustrated and angered me (more on that later) but I think people should see it, especially people who might have been too young to understand what was going on in 2008. They are just entering the job market now and deserve to know why their financial futures have been compromised.
Based on Michael Lewis’s 2010 book of the same name, The Big Short looks at the 2008 economic crisis through the eyes of people who found flaws in the financial instruments surrounding the housing market and acted on it. (To short something is to bet against it.) The prevailing wisdom at the time was that the housing market would always go up, and anyone who thought otherwise was a crazy person. Well, at least three different groups took that bet, and The Big Short dramatizes their fight to, well, get rich. When things are priced incorrectly there is opportunity to make money, and that’s what these guys did. Hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale) determines that the housing market is about to tank and is completely befuddled that no one takes his analysis seriously. He forges ahead, and is the first one to short the subprime market. Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro) are a small investment group who want in on the action, but have to convince retired banker and current paranoid Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to help them get a place at the table. Slimy Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) wants to sell his credit default swaps (insurance on the housing market investment vehicles that will pay off big when the bubble bursts) to Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his group, but Baum is the kind of guy to do his due diligence, and he travels the country trying to figure out what exactly is going on. Everything goes to hell, and these guys make a ton of money. The end. Or probably not, because this same shit or something like it is most likely still going on.
While I was watching this, I had to think pretty hard about what makes a good movie. The Big Short has high energy and is pretty entertaining for something that’s basically about financial derivatives. Its heart is in the right place, and McKay works very hard to impart difficult-to-understand information that people really need to know. But it’s pretty ham-fisted emotionally, and that’s a problem. At it’s center this is a film about people making money off other’s misfortunes, and as such they need a character is who is more motivated by righteous indignation than greed to make this all palatable. Enter Steve Carell’s character Mark Baum. He goes around and talks to all of the people who have made this situation possible (the bond rating agencies, the mortgage brokers, etc) and they twirl their metaphorical mustaches at him and explain exactly how they committed their diabolical deeds. And he is of course, AGHAST. I’ve seen more subtlety in 1970’s Bond villains. There is also a metaphor about the SEC being in bed with Wall Street that is just obvious and sad.
And while those are problems with the quality of the film that I guess I can accept, there is another issue that just pisses me off. I get that this is a film about Wall Street, and as such it is going to be male centered. Whatever. If it makes sense, I can accept a movie with all dudes. John Carpenter’s The Thing has an all-male cast, and within the context of the story, it works. I love it. But just because a movie is about men, it doesn’t mean it has to be completely pathetic in it’s portrayal of women. All of the female characters in this film are flimsy caricatures placed in the story to either support or impede Mark Baum. And, to add insult to injury, some of them are sexualized in order to keep the audience’s interest in a possibly boring subject. Margot Robbie explains sub prime mortgages in a bubble bath, and a topless stripper helps explain the Florida housing Market to Baum. Really? Anthony Bourdain shows up to explain a financial term and he is fully dressed. WTF? AND DON’T EVEN GET ME STARTED ON THE WHITENESS OF THIS FILM. Just throw some more Indian guys in the background or something. How hard is that? No movie “based on a true story” is actually all that factual, so why not cast Donald Glover as one of the quants. WHY NOT?
So yeah, I had some problems with this film. It’s a mixed bag, but I’m still going to recommend it because it has something important to say, and I really think we need to be reminded right now about the damage that unfettered greed can cause. All the ethics training I had in my MBA mattered to me, but I’ll be honest with you, there were some folks in class just going through the motions. Watch this film; get or stay angry. I just wish it was a better movie, but I guess I will take what I can get.