Yes, it’s as good as you’ve heard. And if you haven’t heard, trust me. It’s good.
Michael Lewis’ The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, which he wrote after the phenom that was Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, unravels the insanely complicated and interconnected-jumble that was the sub-prime mortgage debacle which ended up collapsing not only the housing market, but the American economy, and then the world economy. Good work! We all remember those awful days in 2008. And then the fallout spreading into 2009 and beyond. I don’t own property. I don’t play the stock market. But I lost my job (a job I had had for 11 years) in 2009 – amazing that I even survived the popping of the Dot-com bubble as long as I did – and losing that long-term job was the result of everything falling apart. What happened to me, of course, was nothing compared to those who lost their pensions, their benefits, their homes, everything. Michael Lewis tells the complex story by introducing us to a disparate group of smart renegade guys (not connected to one another) who all started asking the same questions about the bonds markets, and asking what the hell was going on with those sub-prime mortgages (nobody seemed to understand them and when these guys asked questions, even the banks didn’t seem to know.) It’s a gripping story, and an awful one, told in clear concise prose that actually helps you understand (if you squint a little bit) all the financial thingamajigs erected in precarious towers so if one section fell apart, the whole thing collapsed.
As happened with Moneyball, Lewis has a way of painting personal portraits of the players involved. Most of these people were insiders, and they all decided to bet against (i.e. “short”) the sub-prime market, so that when the thing collapsed – as they all felt it would – they would make a shit-ton of money. Almost a carpetbagger’s mentality. Lewis always finds the side story, the one on the periphery, and he is drawn to renegades who look at long-established systems, understand that they do not work, and implement schemes – backed up with facts and statistics – to fix it, or benefit from it. Such people are never welcome in any entrenched community. Hey, this is the way we’ve always done it. Also, and more chillingly, because such comments are always prominent during speculative bubbles: Hey, everyone’s making so much money, why are you raining on the parade?
Adam McKay, the director of The Big Short, hails from the Chicago improv scene. I knew him when I hung out with that crowd. I dated one of his best friends, and both of them were on the legendary improv team “The Family,” working out of Improv Olympic, in the second story of a bar huddled on the side of Wrigley Field. IO was Second City’s poor cousin, formed by Del Close, and it attracted some of the most talented people ever. I saw Chris Farley “play” there. Everyone played there. Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Rachel Dratch, people who basically run Hollywood now. Occasionally, a scout from Saturday Night Live would swoop through and scoop someone up. For a year – maybe more – “The Family” was the “house team” at IO, meaning they had guaranteed shows every weekend. They were a draw in and of themselves. Hanging out at Improv Olympic was how I met Phil (who stars in this fun story, but that is just one of many – Phil and I are still good friends today.) My friend Jackie met her husband Stuart performing in an improv team at Improv Olympic. Everyone was so talented that it was electric in that highly social environment. “The Family” was made up of Adam McKay, Neil Flynn, Matt Besser – who would go on to be one of the geniuses behind Upright Citizens’ Brigade – Ian Roberts, Ali Farahnakian, and Miles Stroth. Some of those names you already know but if you look up all of them, you’ll see how far they all went – and continue to go. Their shows were – and still are – legendary. Mitchell and Ann Marie and I went to every one of them, and each one was brilliant, unforgettable, and so funny that we STILL quote them, to this day. They never had an off night. Their chemistry was incredible, the six of them working at such a high level of intellectual speed that it was ESP going on up on that stage. There were no dull moments, or awkward moments. If a joke fell flat, they turned it into gold every time. There was no “star” in the group. Adam McKay didn’t stand out any more than the other guys: they each brought their own unique energy to the group. My old flame told me that Adam McKay was the funniest person onstage he had ever seen, and I thought my “flame” was the funniest person onstage I had ever met. (It wasn’t all laughs all the time offstage. But on stage, these guys were incandescently funny. So inventive. Their imaginations! The connections they made! There was one show where I actually thought I might faint from laughing too hard.) It was such an exciting time. Since I was dating one of those guys – (loose term, granted, although our “thing” lasted, in various forms, over a decade) – I was always hanging out with all six of them, which was an experience in and of itself. They were outrageous together. They were not just guys throwing ba-dum-chings around, and being boring about it and unable to be serious. They were all deep thinkers, quick thinkers, and the conversations ranged from politics to history to books to music to everything else. Their vast frames of collective reference helped them as a group onstage. Someone could make a reference to, say, Malthus, and everyone knew what that was, and would be able to riff off it. (Just one example. I remember one “bit” that had to do with Marbury vs. Madison, for God’s sake.) I ran into one of them recently, at a bar where comics hang out, and he recognized me immediately. Didn’t remember my name, but he was like, “Hey … hey … you were so-and-so’s girl!” Back then, they accepted my presence, were always very friendly, because my old flame dragged me around everywhere with him. Neil was my flame’s roommate for a couple of years, so I got to know Neil best out of all of them, since I was always over there. (We lived only three blocks away from each other. That was during the “crawling through my window at 3 a.m.” stage of our relationship.) I am clearly kissing and telling, but I won’t tell you which guy it was because I have SOME discretion. Having seen each one of them in action in “The Family”, I am thrilled – although not at all surprised – that these guys would go on to be successful outside of Improv Olympic, where they already were treated like celebrities and gods. “The Family” took improv to another level, building on the work of The Groundlings, and Del Close, and the famous Second City teams – many of the “games” now taught in improv classes around the world were created by “The Family.” So, it’s gratifying to watch from afar, but again: I am not surprised. These guys were geniuses when they were working for free.
Adam McKay went on to write/direct for SNL, and then (of course) on to Anchorman, Ant Man, and a couple of other amusing films (influential in their own ways). With The Big Short, McKay ups his game. He and Charles Randolph adapted Lewis’ book, and they’ve done an amazing job of cohering all of these separate stories together.
There’s Steve Carell, unforgettable as the rude but smart Mark Baum, with a couple of guys working under him (all excellent as well). They are underneath the umbrella of Morgan Stanley but work independently as analysts. There’s Christian Bale, a socially incompetent doctor with a glass eye who now runs a hedge fund, and pours all of his money into “shorting” the market. His investors are furious, they don’t understand what he is doing with their money. Nobody understood what he was doing and he is so awkward and strange that he puts everybody off anyway. He seems like a madman.
There’s Ryan Gosling, as Jared Vannett, who exudes the stereotype of Wall Street guy. He’s got a fake tan, a slick hairdo, he’s ruthless and avaricious, and when he overhears something in a bar in the financial district about “shorting” the market he swoops in to be a part of it (or take charge of it). He wants in. He is also our narrator, sometimes turning and talking to the camera. And finally, there are Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro), two young guys who still live with their parents, formed a hedge fund (that they operate out of their garage), made a million or so dollars doing it, and start to figure out that something rotten is in the housing market. They ask the advice of a sort of mentor, a bearded retired banker named Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), who continues to insist he’s out, he’s done, all he cares about is his garden now, but the numbers they start bringing to him get his attention. Something bad is going on in the banks, he can feel it, and he’s not sure if the banks are stupid or criminal, but he decides to “sponsor” the two young guys so that they can get seats at the Big Boy Table.
That’s our cast of characters. It’s five separate stories. McKay weaves them all together with such confidence, such bravura, that there were moments when I actually felt I understood what was happening (in the numbers/financial sense). Unlike Wolf of Wall Street, which shows how the boom in the market attracted the sleaziest of elements, the open con-artists, The Big Short is about insiders, guys who have worked within the system, accept its rules, but cannot understand the numbers going on, cannot wrap their minds around the fact that this even IS fraud. How could there be a fraud this big? None of them are naive, remember, so their incomprehension is even more telling.
Characters emerge from the chaos with little to no exposition. You do get backstory (particularly with Carell’s character), but it’s handled gracefully and realistically. No sentimentality. Backstory provides important context. These are real people. McKay’s direction (and the talented cast) makes what is happening onscreen feel spontaneous – NOT easy to do with such potentially dry material. The characters stumble in the dark, searching for coherence, and the tension increases with each new revelation. In almost every scene, these actors are shouting at one another, leaping up out of their seats, throwing in comments from offscreen, racing out of the room … and none of it feels “staged” (although it obviously is). The mood of the film is manic. Outraged. Confused. Many of the characters leapt into “the big short” to make a ton of money when the housing market fell apart. They were just as cynical as anyone else. But as the scope of the fraud became apparent, as the sheer ineptitude – not to mention calculated criminality – of the mortgage-bundling deals unearth themselves – none of the characters can quite believe it is happening. They all know that corruption exists. But this was corruption on an operatic scale. The fallout was going to be apocalyptic. Each has their “A-ha!” moment. The Big Short is expressly political, but without the typical heavy-handed humorless sanctimonious approach usually used with such material. By resisting the heavy-hand, The Big Short makes its points with panache, ferocity, and unmistakeable anger.
All of this may sound didactic. It is not at all. It is a kinetic frenzied race to the finish. The stakes could not be higher. Not just for these guys, because what got them into the game in the first place (make some money) vanishes as they begin to realize the scope of the situation and what it will mean to ordinary middle-class/lower-middle-class American people. Lives will be ruined. (And, of course, their “shorting” of the market ended up making things much worse, and they all realize that too, but it’s almost too late by that point.)
McKay has punctuated the script with some great and hilarious flourishes, a whimsical and absurd device used repetitively: When something gets confusing, Ryan Gosling will turn to the camera and say: “This is all pretty confusing, right? To explain it all for you, here’s Margot Robbie.” Quick cut to Margot Robbie, a gorgeous blonde (who played Leo’s wife in Wolf of Wall Street), lying in a bubble bath, drinking champagne, and explaining, in an English accent, that “sub-primes are shit.” Or, Anthony Bourdain is introduced to explain the “bundling” of mortgages, using as an example a halibut stew. Or Selena Gomez at the blackjack table explains how the entire system was based on “bets.” These bits are so much fun: they admit that the subject matter is so complicated that even Wall Street people didn’t understand it (part of the problem). So let’s just admit that and have pretty people, who automatically demand our attention because of their fame/beauty/nudity-in-bathtub, to break it down. These small sequences work like gangbusters (and show how McKay utilizes his sketch-comedy background in all kinds of inventive ways). They’re mini-lectures, babbled by completely improbable celebrity personalities, and they also actually do help explain what is going on.
There have been two really good “investigative” movies this year, Spotlight and The Big Short. Both are exhilarating, showing, as they do, the nuts-and-bolts structure of a given industry or culture, and then, how a couple of very smart isolated people become more and more determined to put the separate pieces together so that they can see the big picture. Once the big picture reveals itself, in all its monstrous clarity, far bigger than even they could have imagined, many of them wish they could un-see it.
The Big Short is sharp and biting, extremely angry, but it makes its points through humor, chaotic sparking adrenaline, and extremely entertaining ensemble work (my favorite kind), all of the different stories circling one gigantic whirling center, one story. One terrible terrible story.