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Review: The Big Short

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When the calendars turned to the year 2000, people seemed pretty optimistic.  Sure, there were problems in the world, as there always are, but financially things seemed pretty sound.  Many people were living large and buying new properties in a booming housing market. And they continued that way until seemingly all of a sudden in 2007 the bottom started to fall out. A large credit bubble had been created and in 2008 financial crisis was reality for big banks and millions of people. In 2010, Michael Lewis published his book entitled The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, a nonfiction chronical of how it all went down. Who knew that the director of comedies like Anchorman and The Other Guys would use this as source material for his next feature film? Who knew that what could have been dry, yet important knowledge, could be so entertaining and enraging all at the same time?

The Big Short begins its story with Dr. Michael Burray (Christian Bale, who is likely to see an Oscar nod) a money managing eccentric who determines that the housing market, which is basically floating on subprime mortgages, is about to fail. He decides to take his investor’s money and short the banks on the housing market – in essence betting on this failure. The banks pretty well laugh him out of the room, but not before taking his money. They figure this is pretty easy cash as housing is the one sure investment. But Burray sticks by his finding, even when those around him seem to doubt.

There are other players in this bet as well, who seemingly all come across this odd investment by accident. Banker Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling, also narrating our tale) starts selling the shorts and accidentally calls a hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) who checks out the math and takes a trip to already faltering Florida.  He can hardly believe what he sees, and quickly hops on board.  Two start up investors (played by John Magaro and Finn Wittrock) also come across the info and take it to an old mentor who is smartly out of the banking game, Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) who helps them invest as well. It’s this group of people that discover the fraud and corruption in the banking game, and end up profiting in the process.

The Big Short has an impressive amount of detail, but none of it feels overwhelming.  If financial acronyms confuse you, don’t worry – everything will be explained before the story moves forward. The film manages to make a convoluted subject matter extremely comprehensible, which is a formidable achievement in itself. It also manages to do so in a way that is entirely engrossing, and technical, while never talking down to its audience. This is clearly a passion project from director/writer Adam McKay and he wants to make sure you understand so you can be just as angry about all of this as he evidently is. He is largely successful.

McKay is aided by an incredible cast that may just be one of the best ensembles of the year. Their ability to speak financial jargon at lightning pace makes them amazingly believable. Carell and Bale, who both garnered Golden Globe nominations for their roles, excel here, though it’s unfortunate that Gosling wasn’t also added to the nominee list. His ambitious banker makes for a fantastic narrator.

The Big Short is paced as a McKay film would be, with celebrity cameos and direct camera conversation to the audience, but it’s all used in good technique that brings to light the inherently unbelievable, and terribly scary, comedy in his subject matter. Everyone in this financial disaster was complicit – even the film’s protagonists make money from the downfall of others, as Pitt’s character is quick to remind them.  As much as you may laugh during this film, the knowledge of how exactly this crisis occurred is frightening, and the all too real implication that this could happen again might having you looking at your investments long after you get home. Its continuing relevance makes The Big Short enlightening and essential viewing.

4-out-of-5

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