It’s no easy feat to explain in simple terms what caused the global economic collapse of 2008, let alone to craft it into an entertaining two-hour feature film. But director Adam McKay has achieved just that with The Big Short, the film based on Michael Lewis’s 2010 book of the same name that chronicled how a group of short-sellers — Michael Burry of Scion Capital, Steve Eisman of FrontPoint Partners, James Mai and Charlie Ledley of Cornwall Capital — and Deutsche Bank trader Greg Lippmann reaped huge financial rewards from the housing crisis by betting against the toxic collateralized debt obligations that were tied to garbage mortgages.
The Big Short is far more entertaining than it has any right to be, given the byzantine financial structures it sets out to explain. That said, it feels at times as if McKay is straining a little too hard to sex up the material, sometimes literally. (I was surprised to see nudity in the first five minutes of a film ostensibly based on the implosion of CDOs.) And some of the narrative devices McKay uses to make the material more accessible and palatable can feel gimmicky. In one scene, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, clad in his work whites, converts chopped-up day-old fish into a seafood stew to explain how toxic mortgages were converted into triple-A-rated CDOs. In another, attractive Australian actress Margot Robbie (who also appeared in The Wolf of Wall Street) describes subprime mortgages while reclining in a bubble bath and sipping champagne. These unlikely celebrity cameos, scattered throughout the film, are purely expository — McKay’s way of laying out complex jargon with a wink at the viewer — but can feel downright silly, especially when actress Selena Gomez pops up out of nowhere to deliver a primer on synthetic CDOs. The characters sometimes break the fourth wall, most frequently Jared Vennett, portrayed by Ryan Gosling and loosely based on Lippmann. Most jarringly, the film is laced throughout with interstitials composed of montages of popular culture imagery (think Britney Spears on a talk show) interlaced with images of poverty (homeless people gathering under a bridge). Subtle they are not, and they disrupt the film’s otherwise taut pacing.
Still, The Big Short mostly works, thanks to a crackling script that occasionally yields big laughs and a pitch-perfect cast that expertly captures the outsize egos and trading floor trash talk of the high-finance world. Although the announcement that McKay would direct the film initially drew some skepticism, it could be argued that the man who built his own fortune making movies about emotionally stunted men who traffic in penis jokes (the Will Ferrell vehicles Anchorman, Talladega Nights and Step Brothers) is perfectly suited to direct a movie about Wall Streeters.
Part of what makes The Big Short so compelling is that the main characters are antiheroes. They saw the crisis coming, and in some cases were appalled by it, but they nonetheless made staggering sums off of it while ordinary Americans lost their homes. Some of the characters are more okay with this than others; Vennett, for example — a gym rat who boasts of having “fashion friends” — is completely transparent in his desire to get rich off of selling credit default swaps on toxic bonds that would inevitably default. On the other hand, Mark Baum, portrayed by Steve Carell and based on FrontPoint’s Eisman, has deeply mixed feelings about raking in the big bucks while everyday Americans suffer, and he is disgusted that the system appears so fraudulent and fundamentally corrupt.
McKay is adept at whipping up similar sentiments in the viewer; you’ll pretty much want to punch a pair of smug Florida mortgage underwriters in a scene depicting a FrontPoint research trip. In another scene clearly meant to drive home the point even further — in the unlikely event the viewer hadn’t already picked up on it — the character Ben Rickert (played by Brad Pitt and based on Cornwall Capital’s Ben Hockett) turns to two young managers he’s investing with and admonishes them for joyfully high-fiving each other about their sure-thing trade, telling them soberly that if they’re right, they’ll get rich, but the American economy will collapse. Toward the end of the film, Baum is so torn up by what’s happened that he appears to be on the brink of tears before telling his analyst to exit the position for good.
Some of these scenes come across as a little ham-fisted, and besides, it’s hard to imagine some of the real-life players having had such moral hang-ups. Lippmann, who these days runs the $3 billion, well-performing hedge fund LibreMax Capital, will probably never live down the fact that at the peak of the crisis he wore a T-shirt on the trading floor at Deutsche Bank that proclaimed, “I’m short your house.” And one could argue that the managers, while putting on a trade that wasn’t exactly politically correct, served their fiduciary duty to their investors, which is their only job.
In a sequence near the film’s end, Gosling’s narrator intones that the crisis ended with the bankers who caused it being hauled off to jail and stringent new laws being passed — and then, after the sound of a needle scratching across a record, he says in a smirking tone, “Just kidding.” We all know how the story really ended: The taxpayers bailed out the big banks (ultimately, at a profit), no one went to jail, and the regulation that did get passed was criticized by many for being too weak.
But it’s not as if nothing changed. The banks do look different from how they did before the crisis — even if banker compensation is still staggeringly high — and many have argued that new regulations have made the big banks safer than they were before the crash. Others have suggested that certain parts of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, the landmark law passed after the crisis to regulate the big banks (and which the banking industry fought mightily), have accomplished the same end goals. Some have even questioned whether breaking up the big banks would even prevent another crisis.
Still, The Big Short raises the important question of whether the system has improved enough to prevent another crisis of the same magnitude from happening. As the closing credits rolled, Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” poured out of the theater’s speakers. It’s an apt metaphor for what happened in the most recent crisis, and a warning about what may well happen again.