Home » Heroes » 1 Hero » The Big Short ••1/2

The Big Short ••1/2

The_Big_Short_teaser_posterStarring: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling
Director: Adam McKay
Screenplay: Charles Randolph, Adam McKay
Biography/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 130 minutes
Release Date: December 23, 2015


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I thought this was a movie about oversized boxers.

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

It’s less about underwear than about underhanded dealings. Let’s recap.

It’s 2005 and  hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale) predicts the housing market will collapse. He creates a credit default swap where he bets against the housing market. Nobody believes him and so his clients try to pull out of the fund. Meanwhile…

Hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) discovers that stock trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) is also involved in the credit default swap market. Baum wants more information before he barrels into these unprecedented investment waters, and he is shocked to learn that the housing market is about to burst. He and others are shown how they attempt to capitalize on the impending housing bubble. Meanwhile…

Recent college graduates Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) find a prospectus by Vennett. They call upon their buddy Ben Rikert (Brad Pitt) to help them get into the deal. They go to a Los Vegas convention where a mortgage security forum is taking place. With Ben’s help they make their deals. And that’s when all hell breaks loose.

Greg, I suppose I should be very interested in what The Big Short is telling us about greed and corruption in corporate America. After all, this movie spares no detail in illuminating the many ways that Americans like me were bamboozled by a bunch of white-collar scumbags who invented ways to make money at the expense of their country and every decent person around them. These fat-cats in suits were, in effect, organized criminals and thugs, preying on the innocent, selling their souls to the devil, and laughing all the way to the bank.

I do care about all that because, after all, it is a true story and this entire mess happened  only a few years ago. And I am very unhappy about it. I am not, however, a big fan of The Big Short. This movie did portray all this ugliness, and did it well, but it did so in the form of little vignettes about fat cats causing the mess and fat cats trying to gain financially  from the mess. The nitty gritty specifics of the shady dealings didn’t hold my interest and were, in fact, tedious.

I have to agree, although to a lesser extent. This was a documentary in a Hollywood wrapper. There were moments when the filmmakers wanted to explain something difficult so they tried to “dumb it down” by having it presented by Margot Robbie in a bubble bath or Selena Gomez at a roulette table. It wasn’t effective. Instead it was just confusing.

I don’t blame the “heroes” in this story for capitalizing by betting against the market. They were smart enough to see the bad debts coming due. What the film tries to do, and does it fairly well, is to show us just how intricate and corrupt the financial system is. Even the Standard and Poor’s ratings executives were afraid to downgrade the CDOs for fear of pissing off the big banks. Everyone was either covering their ass, or trying to profit from the bubble.

Exactly. This movie features a lot of players in the mortgage feeding frenzy, including main characters who appear to be neither heroes nor villains but just people out to make a buck. I didn’t have any feelings for the majority of the players. For example, are we supposed to feel badly for Michael Burry that his foresight about the housing bubble, and his scheme to make money from this foresight, was going unrewarded?

The closest thing to a hero in this movie would be Mark Baum, who starts out as a bitter, brooding man solely motivated by profit like everyone else in this film. Yet as the horror of the mortgage mess unfolds, Baum slowly transforms into a man who recaptures his humanity. Also, Brad Pitt’s character, Ben Rickert, shows some empathic concern for others when he schools a couple of young upstarts about the increased mortality rate associated with bad economic data. So there are two characters at least, Baum and Rickert, who are chasing a buck like everyone else but who at least pause for a moment to consider the human cost of this financial disaster.

Yeah, this was a pretty tedious story. The filmmakers tried to give Baum a transformation by sharing with us his tragic loss. His brother had committed suicide and when he had a chance to help him, he just offered him money. Baum is idealistic and realizes that he can’t fix the world and ultimately forgives himself. It’s all a bit clumsy and pretty uninteresting.

Scott, The Big Short is what I call a “cause” film. It isn’t about the story, it’s about telling the world about some “cause” important to the filmmakers. As such, the cause becomes the hero of the story and the elements of good storytelling are left behind. Especially in this film, there are no heroes – only a tragedy that needs to be exposed. Frankly, such causes should be left to documentaries.

You’re right, Greg. The Big Short is short on plot, short on character development, and short on heroes. It explains the 2008 financial crisis in far more detail than anyone cares to hear. The film did drive home the point that our elected officials and private corporations are not to be trusted to look out for our best interest — but wait, hasn’t that always been obvious? The one thing I did learn was never order seafood stew when dining at a restaurant. You’ll have to see this movie to understand this fishy metaphor. Overall, I felt shortchanged by The Big Short. I give this movie 2 Reels out of 5.

There is no hero story, unless you walk away believing that all these money-chasers somehow learned their lesson about unbridled greed. I doubt that they did. Perhaps their transformation resided in their newfound lesson in how to milk the system in sneakier ways, or how not to get caught when exploiting others. I’m not sure. Yes, Mark Baum finds some semblance of his humanity, but his awakening hardly qualifies as a hero’s journey. I award these heroes (ahem) 1 Hero out of 5.

The supporting characters do a commendable job of pursuing their greedy lifestyles and trying to find the best way to make a buck. It was a bit jarring seeing Steve Carell in a non-comedic role and he somehow pulled it off with skill and alacrity. I wonder if the villain in this story is time itself. Everything is about timing the market, getting in on the deal on time, the timing of the housing bubble, the time that investors give a broker to earn a profit, etc. Overall, the players in this movie did their jobs fairly well and so I can see giving them 3 cast rating points out of 5.

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The Big Short comes up short in making me care about anyone in this film. However, I did walk away better informed about the 2007 housing market collapse. As such, this “cause” film delivered on its goals. I give it 3 out of 5 Reels.

The lead characters were not the heroes of the story – the market collapse was. And that rates only 1 out of 5 Heroes.

The supporting cast was stellar. We’ve seen big-star-casts before that deliver a disappointment, but The Big Short does a great job of integrating all these talents. I think the villain in this movie is the big banks and government. I give them 3 out of 5 Cast points.

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  1. Greg Brown says:

    Thanks Scott & Greg!



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