With an incredible ensemble of actors, director Adam McKay transforms the tragedy of the collapse of the American economy in 2007 into a hilarious, informative, and mesmerizing tale of how it all unfolded.
The film is based on Michael Lewis’ best-selling nonfiction book of the same title and follows a set of characters from 2005-2008, who take advantage of the development of the credit default swap market. The characters figure out the housing bubble will burst before anyone else managing big banks or the government. They bet against the economy to make millions.
McKay excels at amplifying the eccentricities of the characters, who bet the economy will fail. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a hedge fund manager who founded Scion Capital, has Asperger’s syndrome and a glass eye, however, he is a genius. He is smarter than then-chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan. He does not wear shoes. He wears a t-shirt for Thorn guitars. He plays with a tennis ball. He blasts Metallica and other hard rock or metal music. He rarely leaves his office.
Most importantly, Burry is someone who sits at his computer for hours and actually reads the housing loans to see what’s in them. He figures out they’re shit. Most are not worth a penny. In one of the best sequences of the film, Burry meets with managers of Goldman Sachs and other banks to convince them to create an instrument—the credit default swap—just so he can bet against the economy in 2005 because up to this point no such instrument has existed.
Mark Baum (Steve Carell), who is based on hedge fund manager Steve Eisman, is another eccentric character who features prominently in the film. He has a team of traders that independently operate in a small office yet have an arrangement where Morgan Stanley has a stake in their investments. Baum suffers from depression. He attends psychological counseling because his brother committed suicide, but he rarely shows up on time for group therapy sessions. And, unlike Burry, Baum develops into a relatable character. He has a conscience and is the most concerned about all the fraud he discovers and how the banks and government allow it to happen.
McKay is best known for his work with Will Ferrell on films like “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” and “Step Brothers.” He wrote the story for “The Campaign.” For a massive number of Americans, these are favorite comedy films. It is evident throughout the film that McKay made it for those who have made his films wildly successful and not just engaged Americans, who already know quite a bit about Wall Street corruption.
Particularly, there are multiple scenes where McKay pauses the story and explains concepts like credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligation, and synthetic collateralized debt obligation. This is done with celebrities in ways the average American will understand, and the scenes are some of the more clever moments of the film. The scenes do not insult the intelligence of Americans either. As McKay suggests, the public is not supposed to understand these terms because they are conjured to help brokers and traders exploit people so they can make millions.
The film’s narrator, Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who is based on Greg Lippman, a Deutsche Bank trader, helps the audience navigate the underworld of finance. He has quite the swagger, and, while explaining shady deal-making to the audience, yells at others to leave the bathroom so they don’t learn anything about what he’s doing.
The screenplay is sharp-witted with each character having moments to shine and deliver smart funny dialogue. Smaller characters steal scenes. Melissa Leo gives a marvelous performance as a nutty employee for a prominent ratings agency, who defends rating loans improperly because the agency needs to keep banks from ditching them for competitors.
This is not McKay’s first foray into the issue of Wall Street corruption. His underrated 2010 film, “The Other Guys,” starring Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg, dealt with the issue. In the film, Ferrell and Wahlberg play disgraced New York cops. It is a kind of satire of the lack of interest among law enforcement to root out predatory capitalists engaged in crimes. In fact, the credits of the film feature a slide presentation about income inequality and the extent to which Wall Street bankers swindled Americans.
The tone of the film is somewhat whimsical, which makes it possible to joke in spite of the fact that the housing economy is about to collapse. “The Big Short” is also in many ways constructed like a heist movie. The characters take advantage of the stupidity and illegal acts of banks on Wall Street and count on the government to never figure out what they’re doing. This gives the film much of its rhythm.
However, the characters are not merely in it to stick it to the Big Banks. They are each—with the exception of one or two characters—unapologetic capitalists. They are motivated by the same self-interest and greed, which fueled the housing bubble. Even when they face down the moral question of betting something terrible will happen to Americans, they still go through with placing the bets.
As McKay makes abundantly clear, the United States government has not prosecuted those responsible for crimes leading to the economic crash. The Big Banks are still too big to fail. Those who bet against the economy were uniquely positioned to help the government hold everyone accountable for preying against Americans because they knew what would happen. But nobody with the power to prosecute pushed for Wall Street executives to be jailed, and what transpired in 2007 could tragically repeat itself with a similar group of eccentric characters betting against the economy again.