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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

The Big Short movie review: first thing we do, let’s kill all the bankers

The Big Short green light

An infuriating yet entertaining look at the “other guys” of the 2008 financial crash. You will want to weep. While you’re laughing! *sob*
I’m “biast” (pro): still so mad about the 2008 crash

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

If you never saw 2010’s silly but wonderfully subversive Will Ferrell buddy-cop comedy The Other Guys — which features a Wall Street financier as its villain — then you missed the astonishing spectacle of its end credits (which you can watch here). They play alongside an animation that you would be forgiven for believing was created by Michael Moore about the injustice of the Wall Street bailout in the wake of the 2008 economic crash, likening it to a Ponzi scheme that made all of us ordinary taxpayers the suckers, the victims. And now, the Other Guys director — Adam McKay, who is also responsible for the Anchorman movies and a lot of other silly Will Ferrell flicks — has made an entire movie covering that same ground.

And as difficult as it may be to accept, The Big Short is really funny. Maybe not in a goofy Will Ferrell way, but it’s definitely the funniest movie yet about how our modern Great Depression happened. Yes, it’s an enraging sort of funny. But it’s all highly entertaining. Which is actually part of the film’s satire: much of what led to 2008, it suggests, was happening right in front of our faces, but we were too distracted by celebrity gossip and the new iPhones to even notice. Is The Big Short sexy enough and entertaining enough to get everyone’s attention? Alas, probably not. Which isn’t a slight on the movie: I suspect nothing could be sexy enough and entertaining enough in our bread-and-circuses environment to make arcane shenanigans of high finance truly digestible. Still, we should be insulted by the ways in which Short sends up our desire to be constantly amused: McKay brings in famous faces such as Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez in oddly — but, yes, amusingly — off-kilter cameos to explain complex financial concepts like “collateralized debt obligations.” But I fear America is beyond shame at this point. Or else we’re all just too exhausted to care. Anyway, there’s a new Star Wars movie out!

The celeb cameos are the sideshow here. Mostly Short — written by McKay with Charles Randolph (Love and Other Drugs, The Interpreter), based on the book by Michael Lewis — is about the “few outsiders and weirdoes” who saw what was coming in the early to mid 2000s. There’s Steve Carell’s (Minions, Foxcatcher) perpetually fuming money manager, who is angry at the endemic injustice of how the American financial system treats the little guy, such as how banks engineer their overdraft policies to ensure that fees keep piling up. There’s Christian Bale’s (Exodus: Gods and Kings, American Hustle) hedge-fund manager, who is a bit Asperger’s and who is all about the numbers: he realizes that the subprime mortgage market must collapse once interest rates balloon and defaults are inevitable. There’s Ryan Gosling’s (Gangster Squad, The Place Beyond the Pines) slick Wall Streeter, who has no agenda or motivation beyond making money.

This is where Short gets so infuriating: these guys realize that there is a lot of money to be made by betting against the banks. Which means, as Brad Pitt’s (Fury, The Counsellor) apocalyptic money man points out, betting against the American economy. They all only win if everyone else loses. But that’s not the infuriating thing. When Bale walks into all the huge banks on Wall Street, starting with Goldman Sachs, and announces that he wants to bet millions of dollars against their mortgage-backed securities — meaning that he thinks they are going to fail; that’s “the big short” — and further insists on assurances that he will get paid if the banks go under as a result of their failure, they laugh at him. They think he’s insane, almost literally. Yet they let him make that bet. And that’s still not the infuriating thing! This is: Why is this sort of bet even legally allowed? How is it any different from betting on a sporting event (which is not, except under very narrow circumstances, allowed in America), except much much worse, because the stakes are infinitely higher? This is not an investment in anything. None of the money involved in such a transaction, win or lose, produces anything useful. All it does is make a very small number of people ridiculously wealthy, at the expense of many others — like all those mortgage holders — who don’t even realize they are playing a game.

No matter how cynical you already were about our economic system and how it is geared toward making the rich even richer by transferring money away from everyone else, The Big Short will want you want to weep. While you’re laughing. Haha! *sob*

The Big Short keeps getting worse. It’s very clear that what powers the global economy is a “rigged game” that keeps getting rerigged whenever the major players require it. It’s very clear about the massive collusion across the industry to give the banks whatever they want, such as good ratings on crappy investment products. It’s very clear about how the media is complicit in keeping the game going. “It’s possible that we are in a completely fraudulent system,” Bale announces at one point. And it’s not at all clear that this is not still true today. Which makes the real joke of The Big Short on us, on anyone who is not in the game. (Which, it must be said, does not include even the most highly paid of Hollywood players, whose wealth is nothing compared to the Wall Streeters’.) This is like watching the Titanic sail right at that iceberg. From the deck. But at least the band is still playing a tune we can dance to, right?


See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of The Big Short for its representation of girls and women.


green light 4 stars

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The Big Short (2015)
US/Can release: Dec 11 2015
UK/Ire release: Jan 22 2016

MPAA: rated R for pervasive language and some sexuality/nudity
BBFC: rated 15 (strong language, sexualised nudity)

viewed at home on a small screen

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, you might want to reconsider.

  • Kathy_A

    The sad thing is that the only discussion of these subjects that is happening in the 2016 presidential race is the Dem candidates (and not even all of them) saying that we have to bring back Glass-Steagall, the 1930s-era law that separated the banking side of financial institutions from the investing side and forced them into separate corporations. Problem is, even if we did bring back G-S, it wouldn’t have done anything to the financial companies collapse in 2008! Lehman, AIG, Bear Sterns–they were all strictly investing companies or, in the case of AIG, insurance companies, with no banking functions involved.

  • The big in-short: We’re still fucked.

  • Michael Stevens

    I don’t like defending banks but your leftist interpretation is incorrect. If you had read the book you would know most of what you just said is untrue. Do a little research. It was basically a complicated perfect storm involving many factors.

  • Bluejay

    If you had read the book

    This is not a review of the book, but of the movie. Is she incorrect in her description of the movie?

  • And what is my “leftist interpretation”?

  • Tonio Kruger

    Even sadder: the fact that the man who signed the bill repealing Glass-Steagall is still a hero to much of the Democratic Party.
    Moreover, his wife is running for President next year.

  • Vandal

    Congratulations on proving how blind your rightest interpretation is. I’ve read the book, and Mary Ann is more on point than you.

  • This was a great script (even if there were very few women in it…pout…other than a very brief appearance by Karen Gillan). I laughed a lot during it. Performances pretty good. Since there were so many young, black haired men I did get a little confused about who was who.

  • Robin

    Bernie Sanders is our only hope. I’ll write him in if right-of-center corporate stooge Hillary wins the nomination.

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