The Big Short

Directed By: Adam McKay

Starring: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Melissa Leo, Hamish Linklater, Rafe Spall, Marisa Tomei, Finn Wittrock, John Magaro, Adepero Oduye, and Max Greenfield

It's amazing how the best films can catch moviegoers by surprise.  2015 hasn't been a year boasting the strongest awards season contenders.  Sure, we have Bridge of Spies, Room, and Brooklyn.  The problem is, however, that there seems to be no front runner.  This isn't a year of films like 12 Years a Slave, Gravity, Birdman, or Boyhood.  It reminds me more so of 2011 when The Artist ultimately prevailed.  With all this in mind, I was beginning to think that we might not have enough movies to fill up this year's movie bucket list.  Then everything changed last night.  I saw The Big Short and all my worries were put to rest.  Blending some of the best elements of Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street and J. C. Chandor's Margin Call, the finance-themed comedy drama from Anchorman director Adam McKay serves up both irreverent humor and gut-wrenching drama in perfect doses.

Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale) manages a fund of $1.3 billion in assets at Scion Capital.  He's been picking stocks for quite some time now and wants to turn to another type of investment for his clients — mortgage-backed securities.  Thought of as low risk securities and the bedrock of the American economy, this investment seems like a strange move for such a well-regarded investor.  It gets even stranger when he tells his boss that he's going to short sell mortgage-backed securities in the expectation that their values are going to tumble.  Burry doesn't think they are so low risk given that lenders aren't assessing the creditworthiness of applicants and subsequently selling securities based on these loans to any and all takers.  His boss doesn't react too kindly, but Burry decides to put all $1.3 billion of his fund's assets into shorting these securities, not knowing when the collapse will actually happen.  With his rock music plugged in and his drum sticks in hand, Burry readies himself for a bumpy ride with a potentially monumental payoff.

When word gets on the street of Burry's plans, one investment banker in particular takes notice, a man by the name of Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling).  Seeing an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a potentially very lucrative market, Vennett floats the idea of shorting mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) to several investors.  He gets the attention of FrontPoint Partners money manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell).  Because he's contending with the powers that be at his parent company Morgan Stanley — especially Kathy Tao (Adepero Oduye) — Mark decides to take his team and assess the riskiness of these securities.  Meanwhile, Cornwall Capital founders Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro) see opportunity knocking as well within this market and enlist the help of former Wall Street trader Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to get a much-needed ISDA and play with the big boys for real money.  All in all, there's one thread connecting all these investors and the moves they're making in the market.  For them to succeed, the American economy, maybe even the global economy, must fail.

I can't say that I benefited from the financial education provided by Adam McKay in The Big Short though I am certain many other moviegoers will.  Film criticism doesn't exactly pay the bills, so I work in consumer banking by day.  Still, we all have some scars that stem from the financial crisis and the ensuing Great Recession — such as looking for a job in the financial services industry when big banks like Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns are going bust and smaller banks are dropping like dominos.  As I watched The Big Short, memories of that challenging time came rushing back to me as I am certain they will for many other moviegoers.  In essence, this highlights the brilliance of The Big Short.  McKay is able to take us through very personal stories about individuals who saw the storm coming while also telling a much grander tale in an educational and entertaining way.  

Based on the book of the same name by Moneyball author Michael Lewis, The Big Short is an outstanding piece of cinema that is equal parts hilarity and drama thanks to some terrific filmmaking from McKay.  Serving up an ensemble story that delves into the details of the financial crisis, McKay manages to keep things fun by having the most random celebrities break down concepts that may be unfamiliar to ordinary moviegoers.  Simultaneously, he conveys the seriousness of it all and the impact to consumers and investors all over the globe.  In other words, the film is funny until it's not for all the right reasons.  All the while, he makes us empathize with the men who are betting against the American economy in a very real way.  It's a tall task for any filmmaker, but McKay is clearly up to the job.  With an intricate narrative full of multi-dimensional characters and a multitude of financial concepts, McKay creates a film befitting this extraordinary tale and reminds moviegoers that greed is not always good.

The film depends greatly on its ensemble cast, and all the actors deliver the goods in their own unique ways.  For his part as Michael Burry, Christian Bale leads the pack with an incredibly nuanced performance.  Managing to convey both the genius and social aversions of Burry — a man who must have been under enormous pressure with his investments — Bale gives us a complex performance as a man breaking through the wall and getting bloody that's heartfelt, humorous, and authentic.  For his part as Mark Baum, Steve Carell is in rare form and undoubtedly the most hilarious of the group.  Despite being perpetually rude and short-tempered, there's more to his character than meets the eye as he's seen his fair share of tragedy and hates Wall Street stomping on Main Street.

We also have Ryan Gosling as Jared Vennett.  Just asking for the sprinkles and cherry on Mark Baum's ice cream sundae, the slippery banker is a mini-Jordan Belfort capitalizing on the downfall of the American economy with no remorse.  Arrogant and amusing in his return to the big screen after a two-year absence, Gosling delivers his best performance since the days of Drive and The Ides of March.  Finally, we have Brad Pitt as Ben Rickert, a grouchy former investor who has retreated from his life on Wall Street to something more modest.  Giving Christian Bale a run for his money as the most entertaining antisocial cast member, Pitt is the moral compass of the film.  It's safe to say that he steals plenty of scenes throughout the movie.  There are a host of supporting characters I'd love to mention as well, but you all have other things to do during this holiday season, like actually going to the movies and enjoying The Big Short for yourselves.  

It's amazing how much can change in a year.  This time last December, I was speaking poorly of Adam McKay's inept comedy Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues.  This time around, I've got nothing but praise for the product he's put out.  The Big Short may have entered the game late, but it is surely one to watch this awards season.  With excellent writing, directing, and acting, this is the movie we all need to see again and again.  The Big Short gets a sober rating.  Happy holidays STMR readers!