January 20, 2016
The cast of this film is so star-studded, you will certainly get drawn in by its smart poster, even if you had no idea what that puzzling title was all about. This film is now very high-profile because of the awards buzz surrounding it. In fact, just last week, "The Big Short" had just been named one of the nine nominees for the Oscar for Best Picture. It has also picked up nominations for Best Director (Adam McKay), Supporting Actor (Christian Bale), Adapted Screenplay and Film Editing.
"The Big Short" followed the interconnecting individual stories of a few maverick financial gamblers as they made unusual, high risk yet critical investments in the housing sector which would eventually lead to the US financial crisis of 2007.
Asperger's Syndrome and fake left eye notwithstanding, quirky hedge fund manager Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), unearthed faults in the mortgage derivatives market and put multimillion dollar bets against it via a credit default swap market. (I still do not really understand what this huge deal was all about. I do not even know what a hedge fund manager is.)
Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), an enterprising employee at Deutsche Bank, got wind of Burry's investment and discovered a goldmine in collateralized debt obligations (CDOs). He began selling this idea behind his bank's back. (His presentation using Jenga bars was illustrative, but I did not completely get what those AAAs and BBBs meant.)
Because of a wrong number, Vennett got to pitch for and convince Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his company to invest in his CDOs. Baum got interested with the big payback potentials, but later his moral conscience realized its far-reaching tragic implications. (I liked the Baum character but frankly I did not fully grasp why he was delaying the "swaps" that was he was delaying or what he hoped to achieve or prevent by delaying it.)
Greenhorn investors Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro) also get wind of Vennett's deal from a proposal they incidentally picked up at a bank lobby. They sought the help of retired Wall Street veteran Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to help them get into the action. (They brought up another concept called an ISDA, which totally eluded me.)
I have to give credit to screenwriter/director Adam McKay for trying his best to explain all the financial gobbledygook involved in this technically-complex story. He had some actors break the fourth wall and talk directly to the audience. He had some pop icons like top celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain and teen idol Selena Gomez to take part in explanatory side videos to discuss about concepts like CDOs, or even more abstract concepts like synthetic CDOs.
Frankly it was difficult for me to get through a huge part of the film precisely because those finance jargon was too alien to me. The bank for me is just for my savings and checking accounts and probably time deposits. But I am totally lost when the discussion goes deeper into loans, stock market, mortgages and the like. I literally tune out when my bank's manager talks to me about these things (but don't tell her about it). I had to look up what the "short" in the title meant, yet I still cannot explain it in my own words and comprehension. I guess there are just those topics that fail to connect with me, and Finance is one of them.
I guess this upbeat chipper tone in the first two acts of this film gave the Hollywood Foreign Press Association the idea to nominate "The Big Short" under the category of Best Comedy or Musical. Sure, Ryan Gosling gets to deliver some witty zingers, but this film is really hardly a comedy at all.
My favorite character was Steve Carell's who seemed to see himself as some advocate for morality. For me, it was his Mark Baum who gave this cold and calculating film warmth and accessibility. Steve Carell was this film's heart. Too bad he was not recognized for his performance on the Oscar list. In fact, for me it was these dramatic moments of moral dilemma with Mark Baum that turned my initial opinion around and made me actually like this film by the final act. 7/10.