Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Big Short: How Banks Broke the World

The Big Short confirms the adage, Tragedy + Time = Comedy. In 2008, when the global financial system collapsed because of mysterious things called subprime mortgages and credit default swaps, there was nothing funny about the situation. Millions lost their homes and their jobs across the world, and every day brought some fresh news article about the greed and regulatory negligence that led to this collapse. However, seven years have passed, and director Adam McKay now brings us a movie that uses comedy to enlighten the masses about how exactly the banks screwed us over.

Adapted from the book by Michael Lewis, Adam McKay and Charles Randolph have written a zippy script that manages to educate, delight, and horrify in equal measure. The movie tells the true story of the men who spied the collapse of the housing market as early as 2005 and set about investing in credit default swaps that betted against the market. Bankers were only too happy to take their millions, viewing them as fools who were throwing their money away. But in three short years, the banks were proven wrong, and as the world ground to a halt, these men amassed huge profits.

Christian Bale plays hedge fund manager Michael Burry, who is one of the first people to realize that the housing market is built on subprime mortgages that have become increasingly risky despite their triple A credit ratings. He invests all of his fund's money in credit default swaps that bet against these mortgages, a move that earns him the ire of his investors and a stressful three years as the market show no sign of collapse. Ryan Gosling plays Jared Vennett, a cocky trader who overhears a banker talking about Burry's scheme and realizes that Burry has a valid point. He starts to invest in credit default swaps himself, and via an accidental phone call, convinces hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) to join in. And finally we have two young investors, Charlie Geller and Jamie Shipley (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock) who stumble across Vennett's investment prospectus and enlist the help of their retired banker friend, Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), to make some big trades.

The twisted thing about The Big Short is that you have this all-star cast of extremely affable men that you are rooting for throughout the movie. And yet, rooting for them to win means rooting for the rest of the world to fail. Gosling serves as the film's narrator and he constantly breaks the fourth wall to address the audience directly or introduce cameos by Margot Robbie in a bathtub to explain what a subprime loan is, or Selena Gomez at a blackjack table to explain the concept of collateralized debt obligations (CDOs). This technique did annoy me and made me feel like this film wasn't very polished. But the fact that I can still remember what a CDO is suggests this film did accomplish the goal of effectively educating its audience.

The Big Short does strive to humanize its characters and make us feel OK about rooting for them. Each of these men profit enormously but they also heartily lose their faith in the financial system. Some try to tip off the press, others try to balance what's best for their investors with what's best for the economy, and it's clear that while they are thrilled to have made the right call, they are not thrilled about what that means about the state of the world they live in. The movie points out ugly truths about the blind eye regulators turned to the warning signs, the fact that credit agencies could be bribed to give false ratings to CDOs, and that only one banker ever went to jail for all this greed and corruption. And the chilling epilogue points out that banks have learned nothing from these events and have resumed the activities that broke the world in 2008. So while you might enjoy this movie at first, you will leave the theater wondering if you need to withdraw all your money and bury it in the backyard. Turns out this comedy is quite tragic after all.

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