Paramount Pictures
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten for Shockya. Databased on Rotten Tomatoes.
Grade: B+
Director:  Adam McKay
Written by:  Adam McKay from Michael Lewis’s book
Cast: Brad Pitt, Finn Wittrock, Christian Bale, Karen Gillan, Selena Gomez, Ryan Gosling, Marisa Tomei, Steve Carell
Screened at: Paramount, NYC, 11/23/15
Opens:  December 11, 2015

It’s too bad this movie was not set to open in October 2016 or early November of that year because after seeing it, Americans would go out to the polls and pull the lever for Bernie Sanders.  It’s even more unfortunate that Bernie will not get nominated, because if a guy like him were in the White House around about the year 2007, we might not have suffered the greatest financial critic since the Depression.  Adam McKay’s “The Big Short” may confuse a lot of its audience, given the complexity of the mortgage crisis that began eight years ago and the way that McKay, adapting Michael Lewis’s best-seller with the same title flashes montages across the screen at a machine-gun pace.  But it exposes American capitalism at its worst, throwing selfish, unethical, amoral people in our faces, people who would be despised even by Adam Smith, the leading intellectual advocate of the capitalist system.  By the time the film ends, many of us will again wonder why working people, ordinary middle-class folks, in fact anyone who is not in the highest ten percent of American plutocrats would vote for a political party that would seem to cater only to the moneyed elite.

Michael Lewis’s book describes players in the credit default swap market who bet against the collateralized debt obligation bubble, thereby profiting while poor people and immigrants, against whom they were, in effect, betting against, got rich.  A few hedge fund managers, thinking outside the box, made tens of millions despite—in fact because—the stock market crashed.  Notable among the few winners is Dr. Michael Burry, a former neurologist referred to in the movie always as Dr. Burry, a man with Asperger’s Syndrome who dresses regularly in shorts and a T-shirt and whose blindness in one eye is inversely proportional to the sharp, money-making vision he has against the vast majority of people.

McKay, whose previous films included “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights,” leaves those subjects well behind in putting together a picture with true, ensemble performances.  Among the leads are Christian Bale in the role of Michael Burry, Ryan Gosling as Jared Vennett, Steve Carell as a fictitious Mark Baum and Brad Pitt as Ben Rickert.  The opening finds us both admiring and finding weird the person of Dr. Burry, whose laid-back approach is actually a reflection of his Asperger’s.  Like many an Asperger’s savant, he goes against the popular notion that real estate is a solid investment and that AAA-rated bonds are sure winners.  When word of his investments reaches a banker, Jared Vennett who goes into the credit-default-swap business with Mark Baum, the grapevine information spreads to Charles Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) whose garage-based investments turn $110,000 into a nine-digit sum.  They use a former banker, Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt, who has a small role and is a producer), to help them get meetings with top financial people.

What follows is a sometimes surreal, crisply edited and shakily filmed series of quick scenes and even quicker montages that include the presence of the financial people at strip clubs, with one of the performers delivering a commentary to Mark Baum on the five houses she has invested in.  In the single most outrageous example of corruption, Georgia Hale, an analyst with Standard & Poor’s (Melissa Leo), admits that her agency gave AAA ratings to some crappy bonds in order to keep the company’s banker clients from heading across the street to Moody’s Investment Service.  The bonds eventually tank, giving obscene profits to the folks who shorted them, i.e. betted against them.

There is even a quick cameo for Anthony Bourdain, one of our country’s best-known chefs, who uses fish as a metaphor, holding that you can always get rid of junk fish gone stale by putting it into a stew.  But there is nothing junky about this movie, which would likely appeal to people of above intelligence whether they are investors, bankers, lawyers, realtors or used car salesmen.  This is adult fare, not dumbed down (though not as hard-hitting or appealing to sentiment as “99 Homes”), a far more dramatic enterprise than any documentary (with the exception of Michael Moore’s) could bring to the fascinating subject.

Rated R.  130 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – A-
Overall – B+


By Harvey Karten

Harvey Karten is the founder of the The New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) an organization composed of Internet film critics based in New York City. The group meets once a year, in December, for voting on its annual NYFCO Awards.

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