Tzivi reviews The Big Short

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The Big Short -- the best film of 2015 -- opens in limited release today in most major American markets including Chicago.

I say “the best” with confidence because I have now seen almost all of 2016’s Oscar contenders. It’s true -- I have attended innumerable private screenings in the past two months as a member of New York Film Critics Online, and my Brooklyn apartment is flooded with “For Your Consideration” screeners from all the major distributors. When the Golden Globe nominations were announced yesterday, there was only one top film on the list that I hadn’t seen -- The Revenant -- and that’s only because I had the flu the night of my NYFCO screening.

Based on The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, the non-fiction best-seller published by Michael Lewis in 2010 which inspired the screenplay by director Adam McKay and his co-writer Charles Randolph, The Big Short uses bravura filmmaking techniques to tell one of the most important stories of our era: the collapse of worldwide financial markets in 2008.

We refer to this now as the “Subprime Mortgage Crisis,” as if it were over and done. But reverberations are still evident in almost every country on this planet, especially our own (embroiled as we already are in one of the most contentious presidential elections in American history). When the dominos began to fall midway through the film, one character said to another, “This thing is hitting Europe. Greece and Iceland are finished. Spain is teetering,” chills ran up and down my spine.

So it is important for us to strap ourselves into a careening car on this wild rollercoaster, and give ourselves over to those with the talent and skill to explain how we got here. Luckily, McKay and Randolph lay it out for us in bite-sized pieces, with tremendous support from film editor Hank Corwin (the MVP on their huge and phenomenal team).

The plot (the cast of which includes major stars like Christian Bale, Brad Pitt and Marisa Tomei as well as up-and-comers like Hamish Linklater, John Magaro, Rafe Spall, Jeremy Strong and Finn Wittrock) follows four sets of idiosyncratic outsiders, all of whom sensed that something was deeply wrong with the Housing Bubble. So they bought insurance on bonds everyone else considered totally secure. The title The Big Short refers to the fact that they “shorted” the market when everyone else went long, but hey, let Margot Robbie explain it!

Margot Robbie is the gorgeous actress who played Leonardo DiCaprio’s trophy wife in The Wolf of Wall Street two years ago. “Here is Margot Robbie to explain,” says narrator “Jared Vennett” (Ryan Gosling). Cut to Margot Robbie (the real Margot Robbie). Sipping champagne in a bathtub filled with bubbles, Robbie is the epitome of decadence (just as her character was in The Wolf of Wall Street). “Short means bet against. Got it? Now get lost.”

This scene serves multiple purposes for the audience. It relaxes us and gives us a laugh, and it also cushions us from all the jargon to come. This is important because jargon was one of the primary weapons used to defraud investors like us and the people who were supposedly acting in our interest (like our pension fund managers). Acronyms like “CDO” buzzed around us like bees. Collateralized Debt Obligation? Say what?

But using Margot Robbie as the first of several celebrity explainers is also an archway for McKay and Randolph to signal that “the wolf” in The Wolf of Wall Street turned out to be a chump, whereas the guys who looked like sheep were the ones who actually succeeded. In the end, as big-name financial institutions like AIG, Bear Stearns, and Lehman Brothers implode, the “insiders” who considered themselves “players” are all turned out.

Insofar as this mess has a moral center, it belongs to a Jewish guy introduced early on by his Rabbi. “Mark is an excellent student of the Torah and the Talmud,” the Rabbi tells Mark’s beaming mother. When she fails appreciate his concern, the Rabbi continues: “He’s looking for inconsistencies in the word of God!”

Mark is a character named “Mark Baum” who is closely modeled on a real person named Steve Eisman, and this anecdote comes directly from Eisman’s mother Lillian. It can be found in the first chapter of The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, almost verbatim. 

“Mark Baum” (like Steve Eisman) was the head of a hedge fund called FrontPoint Partners. One day a guy from Deutsche Bank named “Jared Vennett” (the Ryan Gosling character based on another real person named Gregg Lippmann) called the wrong number and ended up making a pitch to Baum and his core team members, numbers guy Vinny Daniel (whose actual name really is Vincent Daniel) and trader Danny Moses (whose actual name is Daniel Moses). This fluke leads the beginning of FrontPoint Partners’ involvement. They know Vennett is only looking out for “number one” -- as Vennett later admits, “I never said I was the hero of this story” -- but his mere appearance signals to them that the waters are far murkier than they realized.

Even though he is inherently skeptical, the more Baum learns, the more anxious he becomes. He sends his guys down to Miami in 2006 to look at a pricey new housing development, and it turns out to be a ghost town. He travels with them to the American Securitization Forum in 2007, and finds thousands of people partying with no thoughts of tomorrow. Breaking the fourth wall, Vennett tells us: “It was at that moment in that dumb restaurant in Las Vegas with that stupid look on his face that Mark Baum realized the whole world economy might collapse.” Soon after, Baum says to his wife: “It’s all so much uglier and more twisted than I could have imagined.” “Stop trying to save the world,” she says. But he can’t.

Mark Baum is played by Steve Carell in a transformative performance that raises him to the rank of one of the greatest actors of his generation (a remarkable feat for someone who got his start as a Second Banana in “bromance” comedies). Carell totally owns the climactic scene in which Baum is invited to debate a bullish investor from Bear Stearns at the very moment Bear Stearns stock goes into freefall. While Vinny tracks the numbers on his BlackBerry, Baum puts the whole mess in perspective: “For 15,000 years, fraud and short-sighted thinking have never, ever worked. Not once. Eventually people get caught. Things go south. When the hell did we forget all that?”


The Big Short opens today in limited release at the AMC River East and the Regal City North on Western Ave. Suburban locations include Bolingbrook, Crystal Lake, Elgin, Lake Zurich, Lincolnshire, Skokie, and Woodridge. The Big Short will expand to additional Metro Chicago theatres on Dec. 23.

big short carell gosling

Top Photo: Steve Carell as Mark Baum in The Big Short

Bottom Photo: Carell and Ryan Gosling.

After 35 years in Chicago, Jan Lisa Huttner (Tzivi) now lives in Brooklyn. She recently released a new eBook, " Tevye's Daughters: No Laughing Matter ."... Read More

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