After you see “The Big Short,” you might not think those people who stuff their savings in mattresses or hide cash around the house are so crazy. “The Big Short” is a movie based on a true story about how a handful of people profited from the dishonesty of bankers. This is the ultimate bait and switch story and our heroes are men we can’t quite root for without reserve because we as taxpayers suffered from the credit and housing financial crisis of 2007-2010. This all could be frightfully boring, but as written and directed by Adam McKay, the movie is a black comedy filled with pop culture references and wickedly snide asides.
That housing and credit crisis also sparked a global financial crisis which some say was worse than the Great Depression of the 1930s. “The Big Short” is based on Lewis’ 2010 book, “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine.” Lewis also wrote “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” that was made into an award-winning film with a screenplay by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin under the direction of Bennett Miller. Brad Pitt starred in that movie (as Billy Beane), and his company produced “Moneyball” and “The Big Short.”
The movie “The Big Short” actually begins with a quote from Mark Twain: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” We are guided through the world of finance by an unreliable narrator who is telling the truth, Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling). Vennett is based on a real person (Greg Lippmann). Vennett breaks the fourth wall as do many of the other characters. From time to time, the characters will inform us what is real and what is convenient Hollywood plotting devices.
At the center of this profitable investing is a brilliant man who began crunching the numbers. He’s not your heroic type. He’s socially awkward and has a glass eye. The man, Michael Burry (Christian Bale), was an American hedge fund manager. He was also a doctor, but quit medicine to start Scion Capital. At Scion Capital, he had his people do the math and research. He comes to the conclusion that the American housing is built on a bubble that is ready to burst.
The title refers to Wall Street slang for going short, betting that the stocks you buy will fail. In this case, the investment is the securitized subprime home mortgages. This short was going to be big and make all the investors wealthy.
Burry’s investment strategies excite the greedy bankers, but also come to Vennett’s attention. He understands the implications, but no one at his work place believes him. That was a mistake. Yet another mistake brings Vennett into contact with Mark Baum (Steve Carell). Vennett’s Jenga block presentation to Baum will clarify matters for viewers. At the end, Vennett tells Baum and his associates: “They call me Chicken Little. They call me Bubble Boy,” Vennett explains, but adds, “I’m standing in front of a burning house and I’m offering you fire insurance.”
Baum is our conscientious objector. He has an anger at a system that takes advantage of regular folks but his wife complains to him, “You’re running around like you have to right every wrong.” And there’s a lot wrong on Wall Street and in U.S. banks. Baum (based on Steve Eisman of FrontPoint Partners), takes his group to Orlando, Florida to investigate Vennett’s assertions. Don’t worry, this time, the exposition includes strippers.
The movie also follows two small-time investors, Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), who stumble upon Burry’s write-up on his investment strategy while in New York. Without enough capital to play this investment, they call on a mentor, a former major Wall Street trader, Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), to help them get in on the action.
At one point, the groups converge in Las Vegas, but they don’t actually meet. There is, however, a downside to this investment strategy. You need to pay lots of money until the bubble bursts. Not all your investors will be able to hold on and grasp the full implications. Burry’s impatient investors are ready to sue. Baum holds on, perhaps longer than is wise. All the Big Short investors profit but they are morally scarred.
The film includes fast informational montages, on-screen text that give commentary, flashback history lessons, and pop culture cameos with Margot Robbie (“When you hear ‘subprime,’ think shit.”) and Selena Gomez to explain financial concepts. There is an epilogue where the fate of all the characters as well as the bankers is summarized. Even when the lights go on, you’ll feel like you’re in a room darkened by injustice. You paid for the bank bailout, but only one banker went to jail.
Of the five gala movies at AFI FEST, three were based on true stories and one was a documentary: “The 33,” “Where to Invade Next,” “Concussion” and “The Big Short.” “Concussion” shows how one man fought the system (NFL) at great personal and financial cost. The documentary “Where to Invade Next” asked if we couldn’t learn things from other countries and make change. “”The 33” and “The Big Short” illustrate that the managers of the world might not have our best interests at heart. “The Big Short” will give a distrust for banks and caution when signing up a mortgage loan. The lesson learned? Always do the math.
“The Big Short” closed AFI FEST and will be released on Dec. 11, 2015 by Paramount Pictures. Rated R for language and some nudity.