It’s like someone hit a pinata full of white people who suck at golf.
Left to right: Rafe Spall plays Danny Moses, Jeremy Strong plays Vinnie Daniel, Steve Carell plays Mark Baum, Ryan Gosling plays Jared Vennett, and Jeffry Griffin plays his assistant Chris in The Big Short from Paramount Pictures and Regency Enterprises, 2015.
This is an infuriating film, a maddening film. As the final credits rolled I legitimately felt angry. It felt like I had watched Roger and Me for the first time again, except it is 2016 and we should know better than we did in 1989. That is not to say that I did not enjoy the film. Remember, not every great film is an enjoyable one.1
I really appreciated how great Ryan Gosling’s performance was. He made playing a financial tool seem effortless. His confidence elicited laughter and always captured my attention. His character was unique in that he played both sides of the system. As a bank employee he sold shorts on the secondary mortgage market, even though he saw that they would pay out—which would cost his employer Deutsche Bank probably billions of dollars. 2 Assisting the bankruptcy of your employer seem unethical, but was actually less unethical than the banks that sold securities that were overvalued by the falsely impartial ratings organizations and ignored by the underfunded and frequently conflicted watchdog, the SEC. This SEC argument was really under presented, unlike the corruption of the banks. Everyone knows that a Ponzi scheme is an illegal fraud, but what most people ignore is how much of the stock market is based on that same premise.3 The movie does a great job of breaking the fourth wall and having people actually explain things like this well. Margot Robbie in a bathtub was the best at this, particularly since she played an evil, dumb woman in The Wolf of Wall Street, which glamorized the system that allowed/caused the housing market to form a bubble and to collapse.
Like I said, Margot Robbie getting paid to take a bubble bath (relaxing!) in front of a movie crew (not relaxing!), © 2015 Paramount Pics.
The character who highlights the bailout and the true insidious nature of it was Mark Baum (“The Office’s” Steve Carell). He does a good job of playing someone with a personality disorder. His performance is very consistent, even if he is pretty damn annoying and rude. He is the film’s conscience. The would-be cynic who should know that the market is a fraud built on the backs of the bruised. And he get to make the predictive speech near the end about the banks learning nothing, getting bailed out, continuing to perpetrate frauds, and how the immigrants and the poor will get blamed.4 Since he caught onto this new market of betting against mortgage bonds he has the right to say this, even if it seems unlikely he specifically said it in real life. The one wrinkle, the maddening wrinkle, was that Gosling starts by teasing that he was wrong and that thousands went to jail and the banks were broken up and Congress reinstituted regulation of mortgages. But then he basically goes, “Psych!” And he adds that teachers were blamed too. As unpleasant as it is to address, and as inappropriate as the middle of my review is to address it, we could be looking at the true decline of our American empire. As the war on education grows5 and more people get dumber and more extreme, this leads to worse politicians who do not even try to succeed. In 2016, as a politician, it is better to be right about a failure you caused, than to be part of a solution that actually helps the poor.
The character who actually thought to investigate the quality of mortgage bonds was Dr. Michael Burry—former Batman, Christian Bale. So as the movie progresses his bet keeps failing to pay off, so you root for the full collapse of the US mortgage market so that he gets paid; since you cannot stop the damn collapse of our economy, at least someone who acknowledged the sham of it should profit—not the just the victimizers. There are also two young people, Charlie and Jamie—played by John Magaro and Finn Wittrock, who with the help of Brad Pitt made a killing by realizing that the entire system of betting on huge collections of mortgages6 was phony, even the AAA rated ones. Together the cast won best ensemble from the Screen Actor’s Guild. Bale received (another) Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, but Gosling did not. Bale did a very good job with Burry, perhaps it was his more subtle performance that won over the nominating voters. I expected to find that the producers nominated the more famous, “better” actor Christian Bale and promoted him, but both he and Gosling were offered “For Your Consideration” as supporting actors, while Steve Carell was sacrificed as the Best Actor from an ensemble, which did net him a Golden Globe nomination. Point being, Gosling was the best of the best, despite no Oscar nomination. There were so many great performances by actors in this, which leads me to…
This movie did a poor job of including women in the story—or life itself did. Carell’s character had a wife and she was played by the excellent Marissa Tomei—an excellent wife in The Wrestler and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. And then there is Heighlen Boyd, who more than competently portrayed “Florida Strip Club Dancer,” who owned six houses thanks to subprime mortgages. Compared to The Wolf of Wall Street though, this is the 9 to 5 of financial corruption and wealth movies. Still, kudos to Adam McKay and Charles Randolph for writing such a good script. Kind of. At least it won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay. So I am so proud of McKay for growing — even if this was primarily a collection of character studies… And this was Michael Lewis who also wrote the book Moneyball, which made analytics exciting… So maybe McKay still is not very good at crafting a good plot and just relies on well performed characters to carry the weight of the film. The key here was creating more interesting characters than just letting Will Ferrell do whatever he wanted to do. Still, the more I take away from McKay the co-screenwriter, the more credit goes to McKay the director!
1 “Hey, it’s Saturday night, who wants to watch a 5 Star movie?? Alright! Schindler’s List it is!” – no-one, ever.↩
2 First, shorting stocks is something that everyone should know. Because it was a plot point in Casino Royale, which is one of the top 3 Bond Movies of all-time, so everyone should have seen it. A “short” is an option to sell a stock back to the seller at a fixed price, which pays off when the actual value has dropped below the price the option is set at. Now here is what Jared (Gosling) said in the film, When you come for the payday, I’m gonna rip your eyes out. I’m gonna make a fortune. The good news is Vinnie, you’re not going to care cause you’re gonna make so much money. That’s what I get out of it. Wanna know what you get out of it? You get the ice cream, the hot fudge, the banana and the nuts. Right now I get the sprinkles, and yeah – if this goes through, I get the cherry. But you get the sundae Vinny. You get the sundae.↩
3 If you own a computer, that computer has a value. If you own 1/100th of a computer, you should have 1/100th of that value. Now here are three points. First, the value of that computer, the true value, not the perceived value, should not change based on who owns it. It either works, or it does not work. Second, there should not be a legal market for betting on whether or not the computer works—adjusting for inflation, this creates literally no value to society. Third, let’s say the 99 other owners sell their interest at almost the same time and people worry that the computer does not work, so the price they get drops and drops. The computer’s functionality actually operates independent of that perception. That is the flaw, or lie, in our stock markets, they do not reflect the actual value of things and thus are just schemes to misrepresent value while brokers gain a commission and the more commissions they get the more bonuses they get.↩
4 I have a feeling in a few years people are going to be doing what they always do when the economy tanks. They will be blaming immigrants and poor people.↩
5 See states like Iowa and Wisconsin who have elected anti-education conservatives who have slashed funding universally and at the university level tried to undercut any field that promotes critical or independent thought.↩
6 Packs of mortgages are known as CDOs (collateralized debt obligations) and their even more secondary market of collections of CDOs. Margot Robbie does a better job of explaining it. Repacking the crappiest ones as new products gets explained by the wonderful Anthony Bourdain.↩