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‘The Big Short’ stands tall, delivers an entertaining look at financial madness

“The Big Short” (2015) - For anyone who owned stock, participated in a 401(k), was tied to a pension, held a credit card, owned a home outright, or was paying a mortgage, they felt at least some angst during the financial market crisis of 2008. The stock market crashed, 401(k) values plummeted, credit quickly dried up, and home prices tanked. Faulty and fraudulent mortgage-backed securities drove the collapse of the aforementioned markets, and it created worldwide economic nightmares.

From a movie perspective, the fascinating and highly informative Oscar-winning documentary “Inside Job” (2010) – narrated by Matt Damon - systematically walks the audience through the major causes of the crisis and then shows the grisly aftereffects. In “Margin Call” (2011), an all-star cast - led by Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany, and Stanley Tucci - tells the tale of one New York City investment firm and its mad scramble for survival during a one-day period of the 2008 collapse. Both films provide excellent narratives about those panicked days from very different points of view.

“The Big Short” takes another perspective and is a worthy companion piece along with the above two movies. With a wickedly-smart script, this film grabs our hands and drags us through a winding obstacle course of three stories about investors who took unheard of approaches and bet against the housing market/the big banks/the American economy. We, the audience, then receive open access to their thought processes and decided actions and watch them try to make their fortunes in the most opportunistic ways.

As the film moves along, talks of mortgage-backed securities, credit default swaps, AAA ratings, and other Wall Street lingo become massively perplexing. In order to provide some clarity in an entertaining way, director/co-writer Adam McKay allows some players to break the sacred forth wall. One character, Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), repeatedly stops his conversations, turns to the camera and translates financial concepts and/or his actions into layman’s language we can understand. Two other celebrities – playing themselves (who I will not name in order to preserve the surprises) - make cameos and explain similar concepts. These moments catch us off-guard and ironically generate smiles and laughs while we also watch a meltdown of epic proportions over a 2 hour and 10 minute runtime.

McKay (mostly) drives the narratives at a frenzied pace – and keeps us dizzy - as he continually shifts between the three true stories of experts who bet against the system:

A high-strung fund manager (Steve Carell) makes a massive high stakes deal with Vennett.

Two 20-somethings - who started a capital fund in a garage - recruit a retired trader (Brad Pitt) for big-time investment firm access.

A medical doctor (Christian Bale) - who founded a fund (called Scion Capital) in California and spends his days blasting heavy metal music in his office – bets billions of dollars with several prominent Wall Street investment houses.

These men did their homework and saw the housing market as a paper tiger that was about to be crushed, and the film takes place during these early days of premonition in 2005 through the actual collapse in 2008. Through this wacky time period, we see the large banks in denial, rating agencies committing fraud and real estate agents feeling drunk with success, and the film “treats” us to smaller moments like a stripper explaining how she owns five houses and a condo via subprime mortgages and millions of dollars changing hands in The Black Horse Pub in England.

The end result is a wacky, confusing, funny, and painfully sad look at big banking greed, and the men who saw an opportunity to bet against that excess. Carell and Bale rightfully earned Golden Globe Supporting Actor nominations and - along with Gosling - stand out the most from this outstanding cast, but Bale’s work as the immensely-brilliant Michael Burry is the most memorable. Burry is an impressive number cruncher and clairvoyant, and the movie leaves you with the hope that he will use his abilities to warn us all before the next financial crisis. (3.5/4 stars)

Image credits: Paramount Pictures

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