Long and Short of a mortgage crisis
THE BIG SHORT (NC16)
Drama/131 minutes/Opens Jan 21
A group of traders and fund managers figure out there is a sub-prime mortgage crisis looming and find ways to make a killing from it.
IF MICHAEL Douglas' quintessential financial predator Gordon Gekko, from 1987's Wall Street, was transported to the mid-2000s and surveyed the colossal cluster of (alleged) fraud, manipulation, arrogance, ignorance and greed at the centre of the 2007-08 United States financial collapse, would he think he was an amateur in comparison?
That financial collapse is the central theme of The Big Short, a spellbinding "informational comedy-drama" made by Talladega Nights and Anchorman helmer (and Ant-Man co-screenwriter) Adam McKay, from the 2010 book of the same title by Michael Lewis.
McKay's films tend to capture slices of hubris and tilt them just a little to the left of reality. No such skewing is needed with the characters and situations of The Big Short. To paraphrase a certain Corellian smuggler, it is true. All of it. (Though some names and situations have been changed.)
How McKay tampers with "reality" here is to constantly break down the fourth wall and have characters stop to address the audience, or insert little expository captions and quotes that complement the proceedings.
One rather brilliant and hilarious device he employs is to pause his narrative and get real-life celebrities and luminaries to explain, infomercial-style, the basic concepts of the financial terms that pepper the script.
Focused as it is on the sub-prime mortgage crisis that triggered the collapse, the script quite nicely whittles it all down to relatable terms.
As offbeat as McKay's storytelling style is here, the characters are so quirky that they fairly demand such an approach.
A couple of years before the whole mess erupts, an eccentric hedge fund manager named Michael Burry (Christian Bale; The Dark Knight, 2008) - a meticulous sort given to reading every line in contracts and financial statements - sees just how badly broken the whole mortgage bond market is.
Eyeing a huge payday for his investors, he decides to short it, which is basically to bet against one of the most "guaranteed" propositions in the financial world. Since no existing financial instrument allows him to do this, he visits several Wall Street banks to convince them to create one.
Once one bank bites, people start whispering and it is through such whispers, careless or calculated, that the other players - all of them outsiders, like Burry - are drawn into the picture.
Foremost among them is Mark Baum (Steve Carell; The 40-Year-Old Virgin, 2005), a volatile, crusading fund manager who sees the impending collapse as a way to get back at what he thinks of as the corrupt institutions - the banks, brokerages and ratings companies - involved.
While there are other key players here - Ryan Gosling's smarmy, typical Wall Street "Master Of The Universe" type, as well as Brad Pitt's retired and somewhat retiring broker - we see a sizeable chunk of the financial shenanigans unfold through Baum's eyes.
Carell is so effective at playing the seething, troubled Baum (haunted by a family tragedy) that you almost sense his perspective and thoughts through a red filter of rage.
For me, Carell is the standout in a thoroughly engaging ensemble cast, edging out Bale, whose Burry seems to be more a collection of tics than a real person until very late into the film.
Bale's character only really clicks when he begins to ponder the possibility that his hunch may have been wrong, and his fidgety investors all but start drawing guns on him.
While The Big Short may make you laugh at times and cringe at others, it should make you curious to understand a little more about those things you are putting your hopes and your future into, and the people behind them. It should scare the crap out of you. And it should also make you mad as hell.
THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK