Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Big Short: A grand romp

The Big Short (2015) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rated R, for profanity and nudity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.23.15

This is the mostly audaciously entertaining economics course you’ll ever take.

The Big Short isn’t merely a ferociously impudent adaptation of financial journalist Michael Lewis’ nonfiction 2010 book of the same title. Under the careful guidance of writer/director Adam McKay and co-scripter Charles Randolph, it’s a blistering primer that explains — precisely and unflinchingly — why the country fell off a cliff in 2007.

Mark Baum (Steve Carell, seated center) and his talented young financial analysts — from
left, Vinnie (Jeremy Strong), Danny (Rafe Spall) and Porter (Hamish Linklater) — react
with various degrees of concentration, disbelief and anger while Jared Vennett (Ryan
Gosling, seated far right) outlines his improbable scheme for making a fortune by
betting against the entire American financial institution. Jared's assistant Chris (Jeffry
Griffin) wisely keeps his mouth shut.
At the same time, it’s a raucous and yet tightly controlled showcase for a gaggle of unlikely antiheroes, played with whole-immersion glee by a top-flight cast of scene-stealers. McKay employs every trick in the filmmaking book, from Robert Altman-style overlapping dialog to characters who routinely emphasize a point by breaking the fourth wall and addressing us directly.

It sounds like total chaos, and in lesser hands that likely would have been the case. But McKay & Co. deliver the equivalent of the best, most savagely satirical Saturday Night Live sketch ever made ... and they keep it going for a full 130 minutes. True, the result sometimes feels like a series of self-contained scenes, but they’re strung together to build a cohesive narrative that is breathtaking, suspenseful and wildly entertaining.

And, ultimately, infuriating and unbelievable. Because it’s absolutely true.

Think we all got screwed by the 2007 housing bubble collapse? You have no idea how badly, or the degree to which the fat-cat, blithely indifferent — and, in many cases, reprehensibly ignorant — Wall Street and banking oligarchy danced on the ashes of your investments, retirement accounts and foreclosed homes.

McKay’s film reveals all, in torturous — and yet excruciatingly funny — detail, via the activities of a quintet of outliers and weirdoes, real people all, who smelled a rat early on and...

... wait for it ...

... still waiting? ...

... took a financial position against the supposedly rock-solid American housing industry.

Everybody else thought these guys were lunatics. Huge Wall Street corporations cheerfully took their wildcat investments, believing them the equivalent of going “all in” on the off-chance that a single number would come up on a colossal roulette wheel with 100,000 slots.

Because — and here’s the thing — most of the idiots pulling the country’s financial strings didn’t have the slightest idea what they were doing.

And the others were fully aware, but did it anyway, because a) they knew they’d never get caught; and b) knew that even if they did get caught, they’d undoubtedly be “punished” with a slap on the wrist and a fat bonus.

History — history that goes back only eight years — has proven them correct.

Be advised: This film is a massive information dump, no matter how cleverly presented by McKay and Randolph. It’s a lot to absorb, and I have the assurance of Constant Companion — with 37 years’ service in the banking industry — that these details are accurate. But don’t be alarmed, because the arcane particulars come in easily digestible portions, in some cases explained with élan by guest celebrities such as Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez (all appearing as themselves).

By the time this film concludes, you’ll know all about derivatives, mid-prime lending, mortgage-backed securities, credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligation. Much to your chagrin.

And these lessons will have come while watching the antics of...

• Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), an eccentric, San Jose-based ex-neurologist with Asperger’s syndrome who managed Scion Capital, and was one of the first investors to smell a financial rat;

• Steve Eisman, here re-named Mark Baum (Steve Carell), the disgruntled, rage-against-the-machine manager of a hedge fund that operated as a unit of Morgan Stanley; and

• Novice money managers Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro), who started a hedge fund in their garage with $110,000, built it into a respectable $30 million, and then learned — entirely by accident — about Burry’s data.

Full disclosure demands acknowledging the authenticity of Burry (still offering financial advice) and Baum/Eisman; Shipley and Geller, however, are fictitious characters more or less standing in for James Mai and Charlie Ledley, and their private financial investment corporation Cornwall Capital.

The whole crazy saga is narrated with rapacious charm by slick Wall Street banker Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling); he’s based on former Deutsche Bank trader Greg Lippmann. Gosling sports the feral smile and unapologetic avarice of a circling shark, and his Vennett is a predator who makes no secret of his appetites; as a result, he elicits trust while persuading Baum and his crew of wise-cracking young analysts — Vinnie (Jeremy Strong), Porter (Hamish Linklater) and Danny (Rafe Spall) — to invest in the credit default swaps “invented” by Burry.

Jamie and Charlie, meanwhile, initially aren’t able to make use of the same information; their $30 million fund is roughly $1.5 billion short of the requirements needed to play with the grown-ups. They therefore enlist the aid of former neighbor Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), a banker-turned-environmental-doomsayer who screens his calls, grows his own food, and tries to stay off the grid.

But much like Al Pacino in The Godfather, Part III — “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in” — Rickert can’t resist the challenge of beating Wall Street at its own game. Rickert is a thinly veiled take on Ben Hockett, who did indeed team up with Mai and Ledley, and has become a survivalist living somewhere in Berkeley.

Pitt’s Rickert is hilarious: a sloppily dressed recluse who, nonetheless, hasn’t lost his skills. Sporting a grey beard and owlish glasses, at first blush Pitt looks like an absent-minded university professor who should let his wife dress him. Ah, but in the blink of an eye he can project authoritative assurance while brokering mega-million deals on the phone.

Bale’s Burry, on the other hand, is spooky. The notorious method actor delivers an off-putting intensity that evokes strong memories of his hyperactive crack addict in The Fighter. Burry makes no effort at social conformity: not out of malice, but because he simply can’t. People skills elude him; we feel the raw, painful agony that Bale puts into this performance, as Burry struggles to find a way to make people believe that — unlikely as it seems — he is indeed right, while the entire American financial institution is wrong.

And why, precisely, is Burry so dead certain of his mathematical analysis? Very simple: He’s likely the only person in the entire United States who actually studied the thousands of individual loans bundled into highly rated mortgage bonds, and clocked the delinquent home loans certain to default over the next few years.

Any viewer who knows somebody autistic, or with Asperger’s, will recognize immediately that Burry would have done that; meticulous analysis is hard-wired into his eccentric personality, just like his fondness for head-banging heavy metal music. As was the case in The Fighter and American Hustle, Bale’s performance transcends acting; it’s more like McKay opened a time portal into the actual Dr. Burry’s pre-crash activities.

Carell, in turn, is a hoot as the intolerant, hot-tempered Baum: a guy who’ll argue over a taxi with the same ferocity that he tilts, Don Quixote-like, at Wall Street’s giant financial windmills. Baum agonizes over his work; he despises the system but can’t abandon it, believing instead — ever the frustrated idealist — that one must remain an insider, to have the best shot at saving the country from itself.

At the same time, he carries a huge emotional burden — a bit of back-story fabricated for this film — that worries his oh-so-patient wife (Marisa Tomei, who shines in a brief appearance). Carell is a master of flustered, frantic passion, which his Baum wears like protective armor. But he’s also whip-smart, and his various epiphanies — as he realizes the truth of what Vennett is pitching — elicit marvelous expressions of horrified disbelief.

And there is, indeed, much to be horrified by. Your lips will curl during an instructive dinner that Baum shares with high-rolling investment broker Mr. Chau (Byron Mann), but that’s not the worst; the situation becomes crystal-clear when Baum’s team journeys down to Florida, to investigate the housing market in person, and comes across a pair of glib mortgage brokers — wonderfully played by Max Greenfield and Billy Magnussen — who prey on under-qualified home buyers.

Oh. My. God.

And you just know that such scoundrels are out there.

Strong, Linklater and Spall make a great tag team during some of the film’s lighter moments, but their wisecracking humor fails them here, as it should.

That, ultimately, is McKay’s most impressive achievement: Much as we laugh during this entire film, it’s a deeply scary and maddening saga that isn’t for the faint of heart. We exit the theater wanting to clap those smug Wall Street manipulators in public stocks, in order to pelt them with rotting vegetation.

On top of which, McKay deftly plays our emotions, with respect to the story’s protagonists. Are we to cheer them on, from the standpoint of watching misfits “stick it to the man” ... or should we be equally horrified by their behavior, since they’re betting on a plan to profit when — not if — the entire American financial structure collapses?

That’s actually a specious argument. It’s easy, after the fact, to suggest that Burry, Baum and the others should have sounded the alarm and tried to prevent the collapse. Fact is, they never would have succeeded; Those In Charge were far too happy with the way things were, and far too powerful to have their behavior even challenged, let alone changed.

And that’s the ultimate pity, as amplified by the final text block that appears after the screen goes dark: plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

If you liked American Hustle and the equally impressive Margin Call, you absolutely must watch this film. Heck, it should be required viewing.

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