The Big Short -- the best film of
2015 -- opens in limited release today in most major American markets including
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.
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.
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.
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 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!
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.”
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?
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Top Photo: Steve Carell as Mark Baum in The Big Short
Bottom Photo: Carell and Ryan Gosling.