The Big Short comes up big

Adam McKay’s new film The Big Short, starring Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, Brad Pitt and Ryan Gosling, is remarkable.

It plays on the “Wall-Street-and-banks-are-evil” trend (à la Wolf of Wall Street) while also making me (kind of) understand the cause of the financial crisis of 2008.I had tried to understand it. I’d read Wikipedia articles, watched movies from that period, asked my mother about it, and I just didn’t get it.

I knew it had something to do with houses, but all the banking jargon about collateralized debt obligations and subprime loans utterly confused the bejeezus out of me. I’m a writer, not an economist!

But this is the first time that I’ve felt as if I understood what happened.

The film, based on the non-fiction book of the same name, starts in 2005 with Michael Burry, played by Bale in possibly his least physically attractive role of all time.

Burry was a hedge-fund manager who realized the American housing market was doomed to collapse. Predictably, nobody believed him, and he visited a few banks to bet against the stability of the housing market.

You can place bets on such things with banks? I had no idea.

Ryan Gosling’s character, Jared Vennett, a pompous and arrogant trader, hears about Burry’s shenanigans and decides to get involved. He rounds up Mark Baum, played by Steve Carell, to get in on the gamble.

Meanwhile, Brad Pitt, sporting a glorious beard and rimless glasses, plays Ben Rickert, an ex-banker who helps two young investors capitalize on the looming economic disaster.
The Big Short manages to make things like credit default swaps seem interesting and riveting.

It’s hilarious and breaks typical film conventions by having the characters break the fourth wall and interact with, and challenge, the audience.

The film also makes use of visual elements to explain the market crash.

In one scene, Gosling’s character uses the building-block game Jenga to represent mortgage bonds by having the bottom pieces representing the risker ones and taking them out piece by piece until the tower collapses.

It also features cameos from celebrities, including Margot Robbie in a bathtub explaining sub-prime loans and Selena Gomez at a blackjack table explaining collateralized debt obligations.

In these ways, the film makes learning about the biggest financial disaster since the Great Depression almost … fun.

Despite its entertaining style and sharp wit, it also made me feel sick, since these events really happened. And money-hungry Wall Street bankers still exist. I came out of the theatre feeling a strange mixture of entertainment and depression.

The Big Short was funny, informative and powerful. Director Adam McKay is also responsible for silly comedies such as Anchorman and Step Brothers.

I’m glad he managed to use his sense of humour to convey an important message – not just fart jokes and Will Ferrell.

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