NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Monday, December 7, 2015, 6:53 AM
In “The Big Short,” Christian Bale plays Michael Burry, the first stock trader to figure out something is very very wrong with the mortgage-backed securities market.
Remember the financial crisis of 2007? Remember how the entire nation was brought to the bring of a new Great Depression by some greedy bankers and the confusing fiscal instruments they wielded? Remember how angry you were when no one went to jail? Remember how all the greedy guys got rich again?
The makers of “The Big Short” certainly do. Taking Michael Lewis’ seminal book about the meltdown as source material, director Adam McKay channels his own anger into something rarely even attempted by Hollywood, let alone pulled off: a comedy about a tragedy.
Better still, it’s a cogent attempt to make sense of one of the most confusing facets of our modern civilization.
The story of America’s near collapse is told through three teams of unhinged stock traders. One is led by Mark Baum (Steve Carell), who is so fueled by anger at Wall Street hucksters that he skulks through the movie like a coiled snake ready to pounce. Another is led by Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a borderline-Aspergers savant who figures out that the crash is coming simply by examining how many sub-prime mortgages are about to go belly-up, even though they’re all rated AAA. And the final team features Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), who got out of the financial because it’s so disgusting only to be drawn back in when he realizes he can make a buck by betting against the bad guys.
The teams never meet, but come to the same conclusions about the imminent collapse from different places. Along for the ride is Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), a sleazy hanger-on who figures out how to win whether the economy crashes or soars.
A voiceover from Gosling ties it all together — a deconstruction approach that is reminiscent of “Goodfellas,” except that this scam was being carried out by Masters of the Universe, not mafiosos.
McKay (“Anchorman,” “Talladega Nights”) is far more comfortable with the humor of the situation — but that’s one of the strengths of “The Big Short.” At several times during the narrative, the action stops so that a celebrity — Margot Robbie in a bubble bath, Anthony Bourdain in his kitchen or Selena Gomez at a blackjack table — can explain an esoteric bit of financial jargon, like credit default swaps or collateralized debt obligations.
Mark Baum (Steve Carell) confers with Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) as they figure out how to profit from the coming bust of the housing bubble.
It’s not only funny, but in helping to define obscure terms, it may be the greatest legacy of “The Big Short.” But it’s not just a much-needed civics lesson: Indeed, the technique allows McKay to mock our general lack of understanding of Wall Street while simultaneously reminding us how Wall Street profits from that lack of understanding and our blind trust that financial systems are self-regulaing.
Bale and Carell offer Oscar-worthy performances in that rarest of Hollywood role: the sympathetic villain. Their characters stand to make billions from the financial collapse, but the audience can never hate them because they take no delight in being proven correct — and barely even want to collect their payday.
If “The Big Short” has any flaw, it’s that at its climax — when the financial system crashes and the short-traders are proven right — McKay pulls his punch: Were the big banks knowingly corrupt or just so drunk on money that they didn’t care to behave any other way? Baum and his cohorts clearly think the fix was in, but McKay doesn’t necessarily agree.
The viewer is left as he pretty much was when the dust settled: stripped by the greedy, confused about what just happened and wanting someone, anyone, to end up with striped sunlight.
But did anyone in a fancy suit actually do anything criminal? It’s just not clear. Besides, Baum, Burry, Vennett and Rickert get their revenge against the system — but it’s a dish that leaves them cold.