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Taking A Big Risk In The Big Short

Updated on December 26, 2015

The Big Short takes a look at the 2008 crisis in the US housing market, and the small group of investors who bet on it to fail. An intensely private and eccentric physician named Michael Burry (Christian Bale) used an inheritance in the early 2000s to found Scion Capital LLC in California, as he was also quite knowledgable about investments. Several years before events occurred, Burry thought the housing market was destined for collapse due to its inclusion of subprime loans. He was so convinced the collapse was going to happen, Burry approached several of the big banks to arrange the purchase of credit default swaps, for which Burry would have to pay premiums as long as housing market remained profitable. He had enough money to wait for a bursting bubble, and the banks who dealt with him happily took his money. These actions made some Scion investors very nervous.

Others in the financial sector see what Dr. Burry has done, and they investigate for themselves. Among those who concur is Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), a very opinionated Connecticut money manager who puts his own money into swaps. By accident, he places a call to New York trader Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his team, who want to learn how the swaps work. They meet as Vennett explains what Burry took the time to read: the housing market investments are filled with worthless loans, propped up by raters who give the loans high ratings. Baum meets with a man who explains how the bundling works in a way that Baum sees as fraudulent. Business partners Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), who own a small hedge fund company, want to get in on the swaps because they read about Vennett, but don't have the experience to make that deal, so they enlist the help of retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), who helps them get swaps as well. Things don't go exactly as planned, though, as the housing market initially withstands the wave of failures that come when the variable rates on the mortgages start to rise, causing many to lose their homes.

The Big Short is based on the non-fiction book by Michael Lewis, but the movie uses the real name of just Burry. The movie is a riveting, and sometimes darkly comic, look at the events that threaten to potentially derail the world's economy. Director and co-scenarist Adam McKay, who's known for goofy comedies such as the Anchorman movies (which feature Carell) takes viewers to the roots of the housing crisis in the late 1970s, when one investor showed others how to beome rich by putting high risk into safe bets, such as housing, and maximize profits. The atmosphere of the world against which these men bet is arrogant and dismissive, and so much so that they see credit swaps as a way to make themselves even richer. McKay uses several devices to explain the trader terminology, most of which are effective. The part of The Big Short that didn't work well were the character asides, which seem more vain than explanatory. I do admire that McKay questions where the real losers can be found, since, in a certain way, most of the people affected by the burst of the housing bubble are not seen on the screen.

In McKay's ensemble, Bale and Carell fare the best. Both are broken men, yet still able to see the big problem and the big picture most refuse to see. Burry would just as soon be left alone, even though he is a married father whose wife and child viewers never see except in photos. Michael almost never dresses in business attire, and relieves stress by drumming. His plan serves as a source of stress not only for himself, but also for his Scion boss, Lawrence Fields (Tracy Letts), who thinks Burry's scheme is crazy. Carell lives unhappiness as Baum, who hates what he sees among many in his field, yet he fights for the honesty that he feels should exist in their career work. At home, he has a devoted wife in Cynthia (Marisa Tomei), who sees the hurt in Mark, who carries on quietly, in spite of dealing with a huge personal loss he discusses with nobody. I also like Gosling as the ever-confident Verrett and Pitt as the reluctantly helpful Rickert. Also good in smaller roles are Melissa Leo as ratings broker Georgia Hale and Jeremy Strong as Baum's tough-talking associate Vinnie Daniel. Celebrites who make cameos as themselves include Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain, and Selena Gomez.

The Big Short is a largely effective film about a group of people who saw what others refused to see, and took action. Many of the secondary characters seem to have embodied the spirit of Louis Rainieri, who sold his concept, and had others embrace it and build on it as though no end were ever in sight. The Big Short is a sad but very accurate tale of modern times, where some have used their business skill to rob people of things for which they can never be reimbursed. It's hard to say that in that sort of atmosphere that anybody emerges unscathed.

On a scale of zero to four stars, I give The Big Short 3.5 stars. It's not if the bubble bursts, but when.


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      Pat Mills 2 years ago from East Chicago, Indiana

      Thanks Mel. I hope you will go ahead and rent this, which will probably happen sometime in spring. I'm sure that few investors fiddle while Rome burns, they are, unfortunately, the ones that matter the most. There always will be ones who scheme. While the movie, Bale, and Carell have all received Golden Globe nominations, the people who decide the Oscar nominations will have their final selections announced on January 14.

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      Mel Carriere 2 years ago from San Diego California

      I don't like Bale, and I don't care much for Pitt, but the concept behind the movie seems fascinating, and the whole fiddling while Rome burns idea embodied by these investors is a terrible but intriguing look into the dark side of human nature. I'll probably try to catch this when it comes to DVD. I think it has been nominated for an Oscar, if I'm not mistaken. Great review!