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The Guys Who Put Monster Bets On Bad Outcomes In 'The Big Short'

Christian Bale as Michael Burry in a scene from <em>The Big Short</em>.
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures
Christian Bale as Michael Burry in a scene from The Big Short.

The two best American movies of the year so far, Spotlight and The Big Short, are both docudramas, yet are entirely different in tone. Where the former is sober and pitch-perfect, the latter is garish, overreaching, and farcical. All of which is justified by the real-life burlesque act that's its subject: Wall Street's 2008 implosion.

The Big Short is derived from Michael Lewis' 2010 book about a handful of investors who discerned the vulnerability of the market — make that alleged market — in securities based on home mortgages. Director and co-writer Adam McKay has lightly fictionalized the tale, and changed most of the names. But even the maker of Anchorman and Talladega Nights couldn't conceive of anything loonier than Lewis' real-life narrative.

"Securities based on home mortgages" may sound dull, and Wall Street's terms of art — "credit default swaps," "synthetic collateralized debt obligations" — were designed to be opaque. So McKay uses every possible trick to provide cinematic impact and sparkle. The movie employs celebrity cameos, direct address to the viewer, and occasional reminders that the improbable events on screen really happened.

Our host and on-screen narrator is Deutsche Bank salesman Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling with slicked hair and attitude). He's a weasel, but also a hero, because he's out to expose systemic fraud. And make lots of money, of course.

The central characters are Michael Burry (Christian Bale), who runs a hedge fund from California, and Mark Baum (Steve Carell), who does much the same thing in midtown Manhattan. Burry's an outsider and Baum nominally an insider, but both share a disconcerting tendency to tell the truth. The difference is that Baum can't resist confronting liars and fools to their faces, while the reclusive Burry prefers e-mail. Bale and Carell could hardly be better suited to their roles as men who are, respectively, chilly and anxious.

Operating without knowledge of each other, Burry and Baum decide to short — bet against — the people who insisted subprime mortgages couldn't lose much of their value. That this was a big short is demonstrated by the fact that the global economy has yet to entirely recover from the 2008 takedown.

Also on Burry and Baum's side of the bet are two young dabblers (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock) who initially can't even get in the door of the Wall Street casino. They turn for help to a former financier (Brad Pitt, one of the movie's producers) who's so disgruntled by his onetime profession that he's preparing for nothing less than the collapse of civilization.

There's a lot going on here, and The Big Short might be best appreciated by people who've already read the book. That's not because the film doesn't do a good job of explaining what happened. It actually does, although viewers will have to pay closer attention than they would to the average Will Ferrell flick.

What's missing is a strong sense of the major players, their motivations, and their mixed feelings about what they're doing. Lewis' portraits of Burry (that's the guy's real name) and Baum (that's not) are more nuanced, and thus more sympathetic.

Since he's fictionalizing, McKay gets to flesh out or actually invent some minor characters. Two of the more memorable are the callow mortgage brokers who take Baum and his associates on a tour of Florida's about-to-collapse housing boom. These guys, who may be stupid to know how corrupt they are, seem kind of familiar. They could have stepped out of Alex Gibney's Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.

That documentary was released in 2005, about a month before Michael Burry made his first bet against mortgage-backed securities.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mark Jenkins reviews movies for NPR.org, as well as for , which covers the Washington, D.C., film scene with an emphasis on art, foreign and repertory cinema.