The 2007 collapse of the housing market that lead to the last recession was brought about through the creation of complex financial instruments that even those in the banking industry had trouble grasping. Over the years a handful of films have tried to breakdown and explain exactly how those instruments worked and what went wrong, but none have done the job as efficiently and entertainingly as Adam McKay’s The Big Short does.
For decades, the housing market was considered one of the most stable, if not boring, investments in the country. but slowly and surely, some instability has crept, an instability that suddenly is magnified by the creation of mortgage-backed securities which consolidate those at-risk mortgages in one place. In 2005, several investors outside of the Wall Street establishment began to suspect that these securities may be risky and began to basically bet against those securities being able to pay the dividends that the were supposed to. In Florida, Michael Burry (Christian Bale) finds himself going up against his own Florida-based hedge fund partners who refuse to believe that there could be any instability in the housing market. Mark Baum (Steve Carell playing a fictionalized version of hedge fund manager Steve Eisman) is one of the last people on Wall Street who still feels that there should be responsibility while in the pursuit of profit. New comers to the business Charles Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) also foresee the potential collapse and reach out to disaffected, former banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) for help in getting into the game with the big boys.
With a background in comedies, Adam McKay may seem an odd choice to direct a parable about greed and financial malfeasance. But the story he is telling is not done as a straight up dramatization of a Wall Street Journal article or dry academic tome but instead, and perhaps rightly, as a black comedy, finding moments where incredulous laughter is the only response appropriate to the actions onscreen. Full disclosure – I have not read the book by Moneyball author Michael Lewis that serves as the basis for the film, so I can’t speak to how much of the tone of the film is McKay’s injection and how much is in inherent in the source material. However, McKay uses both narrative and documentary techniques to not only engagingly and entertainingly tell the stories of the various players involved, but to explain the bigger concepts involved.
One effective way that McKay communicates some of the complex ideas that are in play in the film is through breaking the fourth wall. McKay is no stranger to the technique. In Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy, he had the four lead comic characters speak directly into the camera to the audience to fill in some of their individual backstories. It was an unusual and surprising technique for a comedy, and McKay utilizes it in a similar way here, stopping the film to have Margot Robbie (in a bubble bath!), celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain or Selena Gomez to educate the viewer on financial minutia such as “synthetic collateralized debt obligation”that would be difficult to dramatize without adding scenes in which characters would be explaining things to other characters who should already know this information. Now admittedly, one of the key precepts in screenwriting is “Show, don’t tell,” but with some of the complex financial products and theories involved, there is no better way. Think of it as a variation on the moment in Back To The Future II where Doc Brown basically stops the film to lecture Marty, and by extension the audience, on the idea of how changing history would create parallel timelines.
McKay has assembled a great cast for this film from Bale, Carell, Pitt and Ryan Gosling all the way down to supporting players like Magaro and Wittrock, who acquit themselves rather nicely against their bigger name co-stars.
Throughout the film, Carell’s Mark Baum is definitely the audience surrogate. His frustration, and ours, grows as he uncovers the increasingly shakey foundation that mortgage swaps were built on and the indifference to their potentially dangerous impact on the economy he is met with by those who are profiting from them. By the time he finally meets with a high ranking regulator who also has no interest in moving to lessen the risk that these financial products bring, he meets their bromide of “I’m sure that the world’s banks have more incentives than greed” with not so much disgust, but a resigned “No, they don’t.”