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The Big Short

(2015) *** 1/2 R
130 min. Paramount Pictures. Director: Adam McKay. Cast: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Finn Wittrock.

/content/films/4863/1.jpgBack in the go-go 1980s, Wall Street’s fictional corporate raider Gordon Gekko famously intoned, “Greed is good.” In the new fact-based comedy-drama The Big Short, the hyper-verbal financial-whiz anti-heroes aren’t so sure. These guys might as well say, “Greed is—well, to be perfectly honest, I got into this business to make money, but now that the windfall of my wildest dreams is right in front of me, I feel conflicted. I mean, boo-yah! I’m calling it, right now. But ‘it’ is not good, unless you’re me, except no one believes me—I’m like Cassandra, you know? And worse, do you have any idea how devastating what’s about to happen will be to the average American, not to mention the average trader? So, y’know, batten down the hatches, you get what I’m saying? What was the question?”

In bringing the nonfiction book The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine to the screen, producer-star Brad Pitt again mines the work of author Michael Lewis (Moneyball). Director Adam McKay (Anchorman), best known for his comedy collaborations with Will Ferrell, may have been an unconventional choice, but he turns out to be just the man (along with co-writer Charles Randolph) to elucidate the fiscal rigamarole leading up to the bursting of the housing and credit bubble circa 2008, while also whipping up a palatable froth of cynicism and absurdity. The Big Short sets the tone with a Mark Twain epigram: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” What will follow is a quintessentially American tale of intelligence, foolishness, and chicanery, and the subject is that great collective delusion we call money.

Like a “Game of Thrones” played with credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligation, The Big Short follows multiple narrative threads that intertwine, each anchored by a movie star. Christian Bale plays Dr. Michael Burry, the carte-blanche captain of Scion Capital who sees the housing crash coming and declares to the horror of his investors and colleagues, “I want to short the housing market” (Burry’s glass eye and Asperger's syndrome feed raw meat to the method actor); Steve Carell is outspoken money manager Mark Baum (based on Steve Eisman); Ryan Gosling is trader Jared Vennett (based on Greg Lippmann) and Pitt trading whiz Ben Rickert (based on Ben Hockett). These men come to believe that doomsday is coming, and though some carry a measure of premature survivor’s guilt about it, each sees a way to capitalize on the disaster.

McKay knows that, for most Americans, talk of mortgage-backed securities instantly makes eyes glaze over. That’s not only motivation for the director to entertainingly explain; it’s the barely subtextual social-justice subject of the film. The Big Short amusingly enlists B-list celebrities for quick explanations of the most crucial, and most intimidating, financial terminology, McKay and his cast employ crack comic timing, and the manic editing scheme by Hank Corwin proves dazzling and cacophonously musical. But the collage of cultural distraction, the media morass that helps to keep the truth out of sight, is both the media and the message here, the underlying point being that this rigged economic system, designed to keep the holders of arcane financial math perpetually in clover, works by the passing of arcane financial math from elite to elite while those who never learned it eat cake.

Haunted by his greatest success, Baum rages, “We live in an era of fraud.” That our nation forever struggles with inadequate education compounds the crimes of financial exploitation laid bare and left unprosecuted in the most recent financial crisis. Worse, the laughs catch in our throats as The Big Short convincingly insists that we’re about to do it all over again.

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