The Big Short
The Bible tells us to never build a house on sand: It’s a good way to lose your house.
The Bible doesn’t say anything explicitly about building your house on a bubble, but the same principle would seem to apply. Bubbles just aren’t ideal foundations for stable housing—much less an entire economy built on the back of that housing. But according to The Big Short, a big bubble was in fact the foundation of the United States' economy for years.
Until the whole thing went pop!
It didn’t start out that way, of course. The element that set the whole bubble rolling—bonds constructed of massive collections of stable, 30-year mortgages—was initially a rock-solid idea. People tend to pay their mortgages, right? So creating an investment that (for lack of a better word) bets people will pay them is like, well, money in the bank.
And the system worked great for a while … until home prices began rising faster than the incomes of the people who bought them. Until banks started letting folks who couldn’t afford a home get a loan for one anyway. Until ratings agencies started automatically stamping all those housing bonds with AAA ratings, even if the bond’s mortgages were more like, um, ZZZ. Until subprime mortgages became all the rage, giving homeowners the ability to pay a little at first … in exchange for a lot later.
By the mid-2000s, everything looked just fine. Home prices continued to rise, and more people owned one than ever before. Nobody was actually looking inside these bonds to see whether they were as solid as supposed. I mean, why spend all your due-diligence time doing that? People pay their mortgages, right?
But then one day, financial wunderkind Michael Burry decided to get under the skin of those little bonds. And what he saw there was … nothing. Nothing solid, anyway—nothing on which the world’s biggest economy should be built on. The promises the bonds made were empty. Just like the thin air that's in the middle of a bubble.
Michael saw the disaster coming. He knew that the U.S. housing market—nay, the whole global economy—was a couple of years away from spectacularly imploding. Institutions would collapse. People would lose jobs by the millions. It could shake the world in ways not seen since 1929.
And in that moment, Michael knows exactly what he must do: Bet against the world economy. Because sometimes the best time to make a buck is when no one else has a buck to spend.
Michael and the other subprime characters in The Big Short buy and create, essentially, insurance policies against the mortgage bonds—betting that the bonds will fall “short.” Most invest because that’s what investors do. They're just looking for ways to make money in the midst of a bad situation. But at least one—Mark Baum—wants to somehow teach the banks, investment houses and the government itself a lesson.
You won’t find a rooting interest beyond that in The Big Short. (And even that one is dubious, partly because it's exceedingly mysterious as to how it'll all work, and also given the fact that Mark acts like a big ol' jerk most of the time.) The financial institutions on the verge of collapse are portrayed as either incredibly inept or downright fraudulent. The “heroes” we’re given are betting, essentially, on a doomsday scenario—a bit like investing in bombs in the hopes that a good-sized war’ll break out somewhere. No one is particularly likable here, much less laudable—and that just might be part of the point.
Growing up, Mark excelled in his Talmudic training—but only because, a rabbi tells Mark’s mother, he’s using it to look for “inconsistencies in the Word of God.” (“Has he found any?” his mother asks.)
As Mark investigates whether or not to bet against mortgage bonds, he goes on a fact-finding mission to a … strip club. (Turns out one real estate agent targets strippers for his special brand of home loans because they have difficulty getting traditional ones.) In a VIP room, while the mostly unclothed exotic dancer writhes in front of him (her breasts are basically bare), Mark asks about her real estate investments.
Bankers cavort in another strip club, and moviegoers see dancers prance around in thongs and pasties. Bikini-clad women frolic in a Las Vegas pool. One woman flirts with an investment banker, at least in part because she hopes to get a job with his firm. (It's implied she sleeps with him.)
In one of the movie’s educational segments—which are celebrity-saturated asides explaining the bewildering lingo and complicated concepts integral to the plot—actress Margot Robbie explains mortgage bonds while taking a bubble bath.
Mark’s brother commits suicide by jumping off a ledge. (We see him right before he jumps.) “His face was so smashed,” Mark says. An alligator, swimming in a Florida pool, lunges at a couple of visitors.
Crude or Profane Language
Approaching 100 f-words. About 50 s-words. Also, quantities of “a--,” b--ch,” “h---,” “p---” and “pr--k.” God’s name is misused 10 or so times, thrice with “d--n.” Jesus’ name is abused a half-dozen times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
People smoke cigars or cigarettes. They drink wine, champagne, whiskey and mixed drinks. One investor, when he tries to warn his mother about the impending economic disaster, is told to up his dose of Zoloft and start taking Xanax.
Other Negative Elements
Mortgage investment brokers and other financial gurus gather in Las Vegas for a massive convention, and much of the dialogue takes place in casinos. Selena Gomez uses a blackjack hand to illustrate the concept of a Synthetic CDO. After learning just how dishonest the housing market is, Mark says he wants to find some “moral redemption at the roulette table.”
Someone discusses, in some detail, a deformity he has on his scrotum.
When two young investors, Jamie and Charlie, dance a little jig to celebrate their impending “shorts” windfall, their mentor, Ben, makes them stop. “You just bet against the American economy,” he tells them. If they get rich on this scheme (and they do), it means millions of innocent people will suffer (and they do).
It’s this dissonance that makes The Big Short difficult to watch and, perhaps, impossible to enjoy. When another investor brandishes a $47 million bonus check he received—a direct result of the bursting housing bubble—he turns to the camera and admits, “I never said I was the hero of the story.” He's not. In this movie, you won’t find any heroes: only different levels of opportunism.
Based on the 2010 Michael Lewis book, The Big Short is an angry movie—and as preachy a film as you’ll see this side of God’s Not Dead. Everything we see—the tremendous acting, the celebrity asides, the heavy-handed symbolism (one employee at Standard & Poor’s who’s been rubber-stamping bonds as AAA-grade investments without much research, comes back from the optomitrist wearing disposable sunglasses and complaining that the dilation makes her nearly blind) is all in the service of a 130-minute sermon lambasting the banking and housing industries.
Which is not to say such organizations don’t deserve it. Certainly a great many things went wrong to spawn the Great Recession, and it seems some lessons should emerge in its wake.
Full disclosure: My working knowledge of high finance begins and ends with the occasional ATM withdrawal, so I’m hardly equipped to say what the movie gets right or wrong in terms of its financial recriminations. But my expertise as a movie reviewer and writer for Plugged In does prepare me to call it a pretty foul piece of work. If these financial wiz-kids dropped cash in a communal swear jar and invested the proceeds in their own get-rich-in-economic-catastrophe schemes, I’m pretty sure they’d double their money. And then there's the stripper nudity and unrelenting societal pessimism to deal with, too.
For me, the movie’s name really says it all. Sure, it’s a big movie. An important movie, perhaps. But it left me feeling seriously shorted.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Christian Bale as Michael Burry; Steve Carell as Mark Baum; Ryan Gosling as Jared Vennett; John Magaro as Charlie Geller; Finn Wittrock as Jamie Shipley; Brad Pitt as Ben Rickert; Hamish Linklater as Porter Collins; Jeremy Strong as Vinnie Daniel; Rafe Spall as Danny Moses; Marisa Tomei as Cynthia Baum
December 11, 2015
March 15, 2016