Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Film Review: The Big Short

"The Big Short"
**** (out of ****)

I hate Wall Street and big banks.

There I said it. To me Wall Street means nothing more than corruption. I do not believe the men and women who run and invest on Wall Street are role models, "good citizens" or individuals which deserve the smallest shred of respect. That's too harsh you will say. People who invest on Wall Street are great Americans. They are people just like the rest of us. They work hard and contribute so much to our society. What exactly do they contribute would be my response. They haven't cured cancer. The haven't even found a cure for the common cold. They haven't invented anything to better the lives of anyone. They play human monopoly. They are worthless individuals that contribute nothing to society. Many went to fine schools and come from families of great wealth. Excuse me while I say I don't care! They, the people who run Wall Street, the bankers, brokers, hedge fund managers...ect are criminals. For as long as I live that is how I will see them.

Why am I telling you this? Because I have seen the exceptional motion picture "The Big Short" (2015), one of the best films of 2015. Here is a movie, based on true events, which tells the story of the collapse of the housing bubble and how the United States economy crashed in 2008.

We should all remember what happened. We lived through it. We really don't need movies to be made about it, but, movies have been made. We are still dealing with the effects of what these criminals did. They have given it a nice name. They call it The Great Recession of 2008. It has a nice ring to it, right? It caused millions of Americans to walk away from their homes. They could not afford their mortgages. Foreclosures were on the rise. Unemployment rose to double digits. It resulted in the United States government bailing out banks. Americans were introduced to a new term, too big to fail. Remember that one? That meant if the United States government did not bail out the very institutions which caused the economy to spiral downward things would have gotten much, much worse. The banks were too big to fail. And what happened with the money from the bailout? The money was used to give bonuses to the CEOs that caused the collapse.

"The Big Short" goes through a lot of that information. Information which the average person should have already known before they see "The Big Short". "The Big Short" however gives the audience names and faces. The movie tells the story of a small group of people who saw the housing crash coming. In essence these individuals were betting against the U.S. economy.

The movie begins in 2005 when Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a hedge fund manager and founder of Scion Capital, discovers America is heading towards a crash. Michael has studied the numbers and notices some similarities between what is going on now and during the 1930s in the Great Depression. Flat wages, the rise of mortgage rates...ect. He predicts in the second quarter of 2007 there will be a crash. No one will listen to him. At the time no one was willing to entertain the idea homeowners would walk away from their homes. Who wouldn't pay their mortgage? Not only that, these subprime mortgage loans were given AAA ratings. It is considered a sound investment. But Michael wants to bet against the banks. Michael believes the banks are going to lose.

This information is leaked and soon Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), based on Greg Lippmann, who worked for Deutsche Bank, as a trader, Mark Baum (Steve Carell) another hedge fund manager and two young men hoping to make names for themselves; Charlie (John Magaro) and Jamie (Finn Wittrock) all start to follow Michael's lead, without realizing they are all connected and doing exactly the same thing.

"The Big Short" throws a lot of information at the viewer. There are a lot of terms and definitions you should remember. Everything presented in "The Big Short" is useful information. There was so much going on, behind the scenes, which lead to the economy collapsing in 2008, that to explain it all in facts and figures it would put to you sleep. You would see it as nothing more than a dry academic essay and would never bother to read it all. When was the last time you knew someone that read a book? Be honest.

To make up for this "The Big Short" does something I was initially skeptical about. It tells this story with humor. The movie was directed by Adam McKay, who has spent his career working with Will Ferrell on comedies such as "Anchorman" (2004) and its sequel as well as "Step Brothers" (2008) and "Talladega Nights" (2006). "The Big Short" is without question the most critically acclaimed movie Mr. McKay has directed. "The Big Short" will now add respectability to Mr. McKay.

Humor is a powerful weapon. Look at some of the movies which have been made that have dealt with the issue of Wall Street and banks since 2008. There was Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street" (2013) and Michael Moore's "Capitalism: A Love Story" (2009). Those movies, like "The Big Short" had to inject humor into their story. If you can tell people something important and make them laugh they will pay attention. Satire has been used to knock down communism, fascism and terrorism. We use humor to belittle our enemies. So they do not seem as threatening.

You could have told the story in "The Big Short" as a drama. Perhaps even as a documentary (ever hear of "Inside Job" (2010) ?). But would anyone see it? Would anyone remember anything about the movie? You need humor for this story to keep audiences interested. You need to make people laugh a little bit or the movie would incite too much anger. "The Big Short" plays with our emotions. You get worked up when the movie wants us to and we laugh on cue.

The performances in the movie are very good. "The Big Short" is an ensemble piece. I wouldn't say anyone really sticks out more than anyone else. Each actor is given their moment to shine. Everyone is given a fairly good amount of screen-time. Some characters are more fleshed out than others but the viewer gets a sense of who these characters are.

The Mark Baum character is supposed to be the moral compass of the movie. He is supposed to be the character which audiences sympathize with most. Mark says the things the audience wants to say like the banks are run by stupid people who engage in fraud. Jared Vennett is the movie's narrator and helps guide the viewer through the maze of characters and financial jargon.

As you watch the movie, there is brief mention of what all of this, the housing bubble, means in human terms. How many people are going to lose their homes? How many people are going to lose their jobs? Meanwhile, these characters are going to make money. How do you get an audience to relate to them? How do you get an audience care? I suppose the only way the screenwriters - Mr. McKay and Charles Randolph could have accomplished this is by creating a kind of hierarchy. The big banks are the bad guys. The people who gave out the loans, the CEOs of the banks. They are presented as ignorant. They just saw dollar signs and a way for them to fill their pockets. The hedge fund managers are the step below. They are making money off their investment however they did not cause this. They claim a moral authority. However, what about those people that lost their homes and jobs? This is their story. They were the victims. They didn't make money. They had their savings taken away. It is difficult for "The Big Short" to bridge that gap.

Still there is a lot to get angry about. How could the U.S. government allow this to happen? Why wasn't there strong regulations put in place? If you allow criminals to be free they will break laws. If you allow money hungry parasites to be free they will screw over people. Anything to make a dollar.

That is what "The Big Short" shows us. Greed. People don't think of the consequences of their actions. They are just making money. How do they justify their behavior? One character tells another, I'll tell you how much I am worth and you tell me how much you are worth. That means, I have money and you don't. Money equals success and power. If I have more money than you, I must be better than you.

"The Big Short" has been met with much critical acclaim winning various awards from film critic associations and scoring four Golden Globe nominations including best picture in the musical or comedy category. This is an exceptional movie. It tells a story Americans should not forget. We should always remember what these people did. They will do it again. Remember none of these people went to prison. There was no justice. People need to forever hold these people accountable. With movies like "The Big Short" hopefully we will always remember.

Which leads me to wonder, why are we getting so many movies about this topic? Why is Hollywood so willing to tell this story? What is in it for them? During the time these events happened and the release of this movie there was of course the occupy Wall Street movement, which introduced the concept of the 99% into our conversations. This is a timely topic. We are still talking about these issues. But, is Hollywood trying to incite anger in the American public? How threatening are movies like this?

As a laugh sometimes I watch the Fox Business Network in the morning. I listen to these people talk and I sit stunned. They talk about the pressure on corporations having to pay high tax rates and the negative effects of raising the minimum wage and the affordable care act. They say it all with a straight face. They are under the delusion they are intelligent. What they are really saying is employers giving their employees a living wage and health insurance is too much of a burden. It interferes with their profit margin. Profits are more important than people. That's business. Too bad the American workforce isn't too big to fail. No one in the government looks out for them. When is Hollywood going to tell that story?

Yes, "The Big Short" will make audiences speak this way and discuss issues. If you are not up to speed about what is going on, that's okay too. There's a presidential election going on. Listen to what these candidates have to say about Wall Street and the banks and the concept "too big to fail" and keep "The Big Short" in mind.

This is one of the year's best movies!