By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 2, 2016)
In my 2010 review of the documentary Inside Job, I wrote:
I have good news and bad news about Charles Ferguson’s incisive parsing of what led to the crash of the global financial system in 2008. The good news is that I believe I finally grok what “derivatives” and “toxic loans” are. The bad news is…that doesn’t make me feel any better about how fucked we are.
Remember 2008? That financial crisis thingie? Well, it’s time to dust off the pitchfork. Good news first? Writer-director Adam McKay and co-scripter Charles Randolph have (somehow) adapted Michael Lewis’ 2010 non-fiction book The Big Short into an outstanding comedy-drama that doubles as an incisive parsing of what led to the crash of the global financial system. The bad news…it made me pissed off about it all over again.
Yes, it’s a bitter pill to swallow, this ever-maddening tale of how we (meaning your everyday, average hard-working American taxpayer) stood by, completely unsuspecting and blissfully unaware, as unchecked colonies of greedy, lying Wall Street investment bankers were eventually able to morph into the parasitic gestalt monster journalist Matt Taibbi famously compared to a “…great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”
However, what differentiates McKay’s film from the aforementioned documentary is its surprisingly effervescent candy-coating, which helps the medicine go down. For example, he sprinkles his narrative with helpful, interstitial tutorials that annotate some of the financial vernacular that gets tossed about. And as far as helpful, interstitial tutorials go, one could do worse than watching lovely Australian actress Margot Robbie take a bubble bath as she delivers an authoritative dissertation as to how junk bonds are created.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. There are other elements that help the film work as beautifully as it does; for one the impressive number of A-list cast members (shocking, when you consider the subject matter wouldn’t likely strike your typical Hollywood green-lighter to be as bankable as, let’s say…a story that is set in a galaxy far, far, away).
The narrative has several threads, encircling a quirky, Oscar-baiting turn by Christian Bale as Dr. Michael Burry, a hedge fund manager (and possible Asperger’s sufferer) who appears to be a savant with numbers and financial trend spotting. He is one of the first to not only spot the needle heading for the “bubble”, but to figure out how investors, armed with such foreknowledge (and bereft of conscience) could become incredibly filthy rich.
Initially of course, everyone thinks he’s nuts. But as word gets around that the big banks (through oversight and pure greed) may have created an Achilles heel for themselves that could be exploited by a savvy few (at the expense of, oh I don’t know…the rest of us?) a few other players enter the story (played with equal aplomb by Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling, and Brad Pitt). What makes these four primary characters compelling is that while each has disparate motivations, they all share one trait: thinking outside of the box.
McKay cleverly employs a variation of the network narrative; all of the primary characters may not literally cross paths, yet once all is said and done, you come to understand how each of them represents (if I may extrapolate on Mr. Taibbi’s cephalopod theme) a mutually exclusive tentacle of that great vampire squid, jamming and sucking.
Ew. I think that’s the most disgusting sentence I’ve ever written. Anyway…see this film!