Sunday, September 4, 2016

Money, Money, Money, Money

Films: The Big Short
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on The Nook.

People say that money is the root of all evil, but that’s not what the actual quote says. The actual quote says that the love of money is the root of all evil. I came of age in the greed-happy Reagan years, so it’s not like these are sentiments that I don’t understand. But, even as those heady years of hostile takeovers went away, the underlying desire for greenbacks certainly didn’t. Billions were made and lost during the dot-com bubble, and still, nothing changed. And then the housing market died and everything changed, except nothing changed. That’s the story behind The Big Short.

This is more or less the story of several groups of investors who virtually simultaneously discovered the dismal truth behind the American housing market and decided to short the various mortgage bonds. I’m not much of a financial wizard here, but understand the basics of what happened. Essentially, these investors bet against the housing market because so many of the mortgages were risky and were defaulting. So, while tons of people lost everything when virtually guaranteed investments went bad, these investors made a killing.

I’m not going to go through a step-by-step recreation of the plot as I normally do, because it’s important to see this with all of the details as they happen. The Big Shot is a story of unbelievably corruption from the banks, the government, regulating agencies, Wall Street, and virtually everyone else who could be involved. There’s no happy ending here. Even the people who made the right bets don’t get much of a happy ending.

Because of this, The Big Short is, in a manner of thinking, a sort of post-modern horror movie. What we learn point by point as the story goes on exactly how the housing bubble happened. Lenders provided mortgages to people who couldn’t afford them and then packaged these mortgages into bundles and offered bonds on them. Since for decades these bonds were highly rated and safe, people continued to invest in them. Worse, the agencies that rated the bonds were pressured into giving those bonds high ratings despite them actually being incredibly risky. Even when people had stopped paying on their mortgages and they were going into foreclosure, the bonds were still rated highly. Worse, the various financial institutions started shorting the bonds themselves, meaning that they would profit regardless.

In other words, this is the story of the recession from 2007. This is precisely why The Big Short is a horror movie. It’s a horror movie because it really happened and the monsters—all the bankers and regulators—got away with it and despite destroying the lives of millions of people, walked away richer than before.

There are plenty of solid performances here, particular Christian Bale, who is more or less a high-functioning autistic and one of the first to notice the impending collapse of the market. Bale has no social graces here and he’s not supposed to. Similarly without social graces is Ryan Gosling, who is sleazy and greedy, and also serves as the narrator. It's Steve Carell who is in many ways the most interesting, though. He's demonstrating that like a number of comedians before him, he's more than capable of serious roles.

It’s the way in which The Big Short is told that is most interesting, though. At several points in the movie, we’re given short primers on how the whole system works by a variety of people, like Anthony Bourdain, as themselves. These are really helpful for those of us without much knowledge of the financial world. At other times, characters in the film break the fourth wall and explain to us how the events in the film are different from what actually happened in reality. It’s an interesting choice, and it works extremely well.

The truth is that the resolution of The Big Short is incredibly depressing. As I said above, there are no happy endings here, and what’s worse is that there’s a strong likelihood that no one who was involved in the creation of this problem has learned anything from what happened. Money attracts money, and it also attracts corruption. It may not happen again within my lifetime, but this is history that will repeat itself. We’re not smart enough to really learn a lesson and we don’t have enough power to prevent it from happening again.

The Big Short manages to be entertaining from start to finish in part because of how it is filmed, in part because of how well it is acted. Even if it weren’t, it would be worth watching because it’s a story that needs to be seen by everyone. That it’s really good is a bonus, and something that makes it worth watching more than once.

Why to watch The Big Short: It defines must-see.
Why not to watch: You will not be happy at the end.


  1. Good review, thanks. The Big Short is my #1 movie of 2015 -- the book is also a terrific read. For a similarly styled film, check out 2016's War Dogs.

    1. I've still got a few from last year to watch, but it's ranking pretty high for me right now.

  2. This was a hugely depressing film, but one that I really enjoyed, primarily because of the economic "primers". There was a good deal of dark humor in this film that I wasn't expecting. But by the end, all I could do was shake my head in disbelief that this actually happened.

    1. The humor is really the only thing that prevents this from starting a new subgenre I'd call "economic horror."

  3. I saw The Big Short last night and found it to be watchable and entertaining, a very good film explaining a very complex yet compelling way. It helped a lot that Steve Carell was great!

    I was driving around this morning and I was thinking about films like this, tackling contemporary subjects by going step by step through the process of how it happened. Like Spotlight or Truth. And I was thinking how cool it would be to have a film like this about the Great Depression! We, of course, have hundreds of films about how the Great Depression affected people (almost every contemporary movie made in the 1930s, for example). But getting into the details of what caused it? (Maybe I just don't know about it.)

    It pains me that Philip Seymour Hoffman is dead and can't play Herbert Hoover.

    What if they had made such a film in 1932? They could have had James Cagney or Wallace Beery or Edward G. Robinson or William Powell. Along with Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Blondell or Myrna Loy. In a two-hour movie about the causes of the Great Depression in the style of something like The Big Short. I can totally see Jean Harlow in a bathtub explaining what short-selling is.

    1. I haven't really thought about a Great Depression movie made during or just after it happened, but it would be an interesting casting problem.

      Maybe John Goodman could play Hoover?

    2. I want to see Bryan Cranston as Calvin Coolidge.