Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A comic look at the road to ruin

Terrific performances, biting wit and insight make The Big Short one of the year's best movies.

The weird thing about The Big Short is this: At some point you realize (as do some of the movie's characters) that you're rooting for a group of guys to make a financial killing, but you also know that their success means the whole economy will tank.

So watching the movie leaves you feeling elated, dejected and angry in quick succession, which, I presume, is precisely what director Adam McKay intended when he adapted Michael Lewis' book about the devastations caused by the collapse of the subprime-mortgage market.

I've read criticisms of McKay's movie that focused on the fact that it's entertaining without being infuriating enough.

Maybe so, but I think McKay's effort has a different value: It focuses on the insanity that drove the mortgage market prior to 2008 when the bottom fell out. When confronted with this kind of damaging absurdity, we're tempted to think that two choices manifest: We either laugh or sink into the deepest of funks.

But McKay and a very able cast offer a third alternative: We do both -- and we applaud the efforts of a filmmaker who rips the mask off a brand of stupidity and greed that may not entirely have disappeared just because the economy has improved.

Now, the chances are pretty good that a whole lot of people don't really understand what happened with sub-prime mortgages. If someone asked you to define a CDO (collateralized debt obligation) could you do it? Same goes for a credit default swap.

Charles Randolph's screenplay goes a long way toward explaining such financial instruments, sometimes interrupting the movie's narrative flow with brief lectures from celebrities such as Margot Robbie, seen in a bathtub speaking directly to the camera. Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez also chime in.

At first, you wonder what the hell these people are doing in the movie, but you quickly realize that McKay has decided to make the necessary explanations as diverting as possible before returning to a story that's driven by terrific performances.

The tone is set early when Ryan Gosling appears as a Deutsche Bank hotshot who intermittently serves as our cynical guide through the story.

Christian Bale plays Michael Burry, a former MD who wears T-shirts and shorts at work, walks around his office barefoot and sometimes sits at desk beating a pair of drumsticks against his thighs. Burry's the genius who actually peeked inside the packaging and re-packaging of mortgage-backed securities and realized that they were built on air.

Given enough time, Burry knew the whole structure would collapse, which prompted him to set about inventing a mechanism to bet against a mortgage market that most regarded as rock solid.

Then there's Mark Baum (Steve Carell) a New York hedge fund manager with a conscience. When Gosling's Jared Venentt insists that it's time to bet against mortgages, Baum voices skepticism. So does his team.

Baum seems to combine two traits that can make life difficult for an ambitious investor: He wants to make money, and he also wants to view himself as an ethical player.

When Baum and his team tour Florida's devastated luxury housing market, they hardly can believe the mortgage bankers they encounter, guys who are more likely to sprout wings than develop anything resembling a conscience.

At a conference in Las Vegas, Baum meets with another wheeler-dealer. Again, he can't believe what he's hearing from a supposed maven. It may be a rationalization on Baum's part, but he convinces himself that these smug idiots deserve a comeuppance. He's more certain than ever that it's time to sell short.

But in what may be his best performance yet, Carell makes it clear that Baum won't be laughing all the way to the bank. He's genuinely worried about the pain the economy will suffer.

Those familiar with Lewis' book quickly will note that McKay has made alterations. But the gist is the same: For a time (and who knows if that time truly has ended) the economy was based on fraud, greed and a near-total disconnect from reality.

The economy became paper, and, in the end, wasn't worth what it was printed on.

And then there's Brad Pitt. Pitt has a very nice turn as Ben Rickert, a guy who made a fortune, turned his back on Wall Street and retired to Boulder.

A couple of newbies (Finn Wittrock and John Magaro) discover that they'd be smart to bet against all the phony/baloney mortgages. They convince the reclusive Rickert to help them move from the kids' table to the one where the high rollers sit.

Pitt's Rickert believes this duo, which sometimes provides straight-ahead comic relief, but he also tries to educate them: If they win, the world loses.

And, yes, before it's done, The Big Short reminds us that ordinary people suffered because of what the big boys did.

So don't bet against The Big Short. It's an exuberant, smart and pointed reminder that much of what we believe about the economy takes place in a world of smoke and mirrors.

When the smoke clears and the mirrors break, it's people like us who are left wondering what wrong. The Big Short wants us to know.

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