Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Big Short

Betting Against the House
Whose Default Is It, Anyway?

Michael Lewis is the darling of the non-fiction set, as Dan Brown is for fiction. His books have a great in-depth take on interesting subjects and change perspectives in fields that have already been well-tilled. Best-sellers get noticed by the movies and his books of "Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game" and "The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game" attracted Hollywood. The one book Lewis thought would never be turned into a movie was his "The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine," because it was about economics and, more specifically, the bursting of the housing bubble and the resulting nuclear conflagration of the mortgage industry.

Now, the situation has been mined for movies before—Oliver Stone's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, and (more successfully) Margin Call—but, Lewis' take was a little different. It focused on the money-men who bet against the prevailing wisdom and saw the vast mortgage industry of buying mortgage after mortgage propping up the housing industry as a house of cards—there was no real money in it, merely paper, except at the tip of the iceberg. If things started to change, and if the industry didn't keep propping up its fantasy of the emperor having a nice outfit, the whole thing would collapse. All those houses had foundations of sand.
What an exciting movie that would make! Geeks looking at their computer-screens spotting trends. But, as unlikely as making a movie from Lewis' least cinematic book might be, it's even less likely that it could be made into a decent film by Adam McKay. McKay is most associated with movies starring Will Ferrell (Anchorman I and II, Step-Brothers, Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby) and he created the comedy web-channel "Funny or Die!" with the comedian. Not the best record for doing a movie with this subject matter (and the distributor, Paramount, insisted that he do Anchorman II in order to off-set the predicted losses on The Big Short—it's own movie hedge-fund, a bit like life imitating art imitating life). But, sonuvagun, if McKay didn't pull the thing off, with a complex strategy that made the movie seem a lot less complex and entertaining to those wandering in off the streets looking for movie-fodder to kill a couple hours (and convince nervous movie execs that the movie, if done right, had precedent for attracting audiences).
McKay and his co-screenwriter Charles Randolph (who did something similar with the pharma-rom-com Love and Other Drugs) staged the whole thing as if it was a disconnected version of Ocean's 11 (one of the financiers of The Big Short is Plan B, Brad Pitt's production company), then top-loaded it with versatile performers who could do both drama and comedy—Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Pitt, Ryan Gosling—as point-men in the parallel stories of the only semi-affiliated co-conspirators.
Bale's Burry feigns indifference when launching his credit default scheme
before an unbelieving Goldman Sachs securities team.
Bale plays Michael Burry, an idiosyncratic investor who could never fit in to the corporate environment, but whose success has attracted a lot of big time money-men (Burry is the only real name in the screenplay and the real Burry isn't nearly as odd-ball as Bale's wonderful portrayal). After some careful analysis of the top-selling mortgage bonds, he sees that they are mostly financed by sub-prime loans that run the risk of defaulting if not backed up by actual cash. And it is here that McKay does something a little brilliant. He has his narrator Jared Vennett (Gosling) introduce the subject of sub-prime loans and what they are by saying "to explain them, here is Margot Robbie in a bubble-bath."
Cut to a soaking Robbie. Sipping champagne, she raunchily describes sub-prime loans, their origins and usefulness to growing a market, and just how volatile they are by saying "when you hear 'sub-prime loans,' think 'shit'" then blithely dismisses us with an "f-bomb" and we're back to the movie.

This is a little brilliant. McKay doesn't use this too much—chef-writer Anthony Bourdain goes over collateralized debt obligations and Selena Gomez expands on it by talking about synthetic CDO's—too much of it would ruin the surprise and, frankly, you've got to be careful about who you have do this stuff. McKay also bridges sequences with very artfully done montage sequences that give context and a smattering of fore-shadowing which up's the tension.
Ryan Gosling's Jared Vennett gets wind of the plan and becomes
its chief salesman and our narrator.
Part of the tension is provided by Carell, playing a fictional investor (although based on Steve Eisman), who is so dyspeptic and without filters that he can single-handedly ruin a group-therapy session. Bale's Burry comes up with the brilliant scheme (which amuses Goldman Sachs, confident in their pyramid housing scheme), but word gets to Venett who then sells the idea to Baum's company—although he's turned off by Venett's sales tactics and his own queasiness about the state of the business and the ethics of of profiting hugely on other people's miseries. Then there are the upstarts Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro) who stumble onto the tactic and seek out financial guru Ben Rickert (Pitt) to be the financial Gandalf to their Hobbits and oversee the journey of valleys and hills to the pot of gold.
It is, of course, a risk. One that not everyone understands and is laughed at and mocked in the financial community high on its own profits and affluenza. Meanwhile, those invested in the hedge funds see the trends not abating and their risks increasing. Burry loses investors who think he's "gone rogue" and taking unnecessary risks with their money. All of the players see their investments in the hedge-fund not paying off and, in fact, losing money they could be spending on other things. They have bet large against the house and the house continues to win.
It all comes together in one of those "nobody-would-believe-this-if-you-wrote-it" moments where the protagonists get a front-row seat to seeing their dreams come true amidst the nightmares of others—one of the most telling is Shipley and Geller taking a tour of the abandoned offices and trading floors of multi-billion dollar companies they were barred from entering before. Along the way, factoids are dropped, hands wrung, and Rome burns...only to be bailed out by taxpayer money, the one seemingly inexhaustible resource. 

And the band plays on.

The Big Short might be called a black comedy...if anybody were laughing. For the characters, success only leads to contempt. There is no sense of triumph, only tragedy, and one is left as empty as a retirement account at the end of it. Still, for making a good film out of a sore subject, The Big Short is worth the investment.

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