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The Real Tragedy of 'The Big Short'
What I did not expect about The Big Short was how funny it was, and how tragic that use of comedy would eventually be. The director, Adam McKay, thought it best not to dumb down the information, but to put in a way that would capture our attentions and imaginations through the form of comedy. The film is a tale of the economic disaster that took place in 2008, a disaster we are still trying to recover from.
With a cast that is as heavy as the one featured, it is easy to think that the movie would deliver what it intended. Christian Bale, who plays Dr. Michael Burry, and Steve Carrell, who plays Mark Baum, headlines a cast that also includes Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt (of course the names were changed in the movie from the book). Gosling plays Jared Vennet, an employee of one of the “big banks,” Deutsche Bank. He introduces the characters, and is smart enough to see an opportunity and capitalize on it by betting against the bank alongside of Baum (Carrell). He doesn’t pretend to be a hero of the movie, having no moral qualms about taking his eight-digit check at the end of the movie. “I can feel you judging me,” Vennet says. “It’s palpable.”
But morality is the biggest part of this tale, from beginning to end, as it always is in life. The irony is that McKay’s movies haven’t always been morality tales, having directed Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and Step Brothers. Comedy and morality seem to be located in separate quarters of the proverbial house. Not here. Irony is spread throughout the movie, not just from the characters but actions and results of the people who are supposed to be moral. The big banks were selling bad loans; when they didn’t sell, they were re-packaged, bundled, and then sold off as good loans to unsuspecting buyers. The “big short” is what these characters did by betting against the banks. They have uncovered the scam, and are betting against the loans, which people kept saying would never fail.
Burry is an eccentric financial tycoon who works in his shorts, barefoot, and while blasting heavy metal music. He notices inconsistencies within the mortgage loans in the past few years, and realizes that more and more of them are headed into default. Of course, because he is a financial wizard, he has already been given the green light to invest over a billion dollars given to him by investors. Banks for betting against the housing market laugh him at, but are glad to take his money.
The real hero of the movie is Mark Baum, who is an ice-cold moneymaker. He says things how they are, and will not hold his tongue in an effort to be nice. Being nice is for people who are unsure, and that isn’t his style. He knows what he wants; he wants to make money. He overworks himself in an effort to get over the loss of his brother, whom we later learn committed suicide. Baum has no interest in dealing with the emotional side of that loss, he simply keeps on keeping on.
The way he hears about this “short” is through Vennet, who meets with him to collaborate. Vennet wants to go in with someone and reap the rewards of it. Baum is skeptical at first, but intrigued. Baum’s team then goes to Miami and investigates the housing market to see whether this was indeed the real deal. After talking to two mortgage brokers who sell terrible loans to those who have no credit or income and then speaking to a Hispanic family who were renting from one of the houses going into default, he becomes convinced that the housing market is indeed headed for a crash. It’s at this point until the end that Carrell shows the kind of acting chops that I thought he should have been recognized for in Foxcatcher. He makes this ice-cold character into a believable, morally complex, character, because he understands that betting against the banks means that he will win while millions of people across the country lose.
Besides the tragedy that was the Iraq War, millions of houses went into foreclosure and lost their jobs during the economic depression in 2008. The end of the movie makes it a point that although the big banks did fail, they were bailed out in the end by Washington. Nobody went to jail for the atrocious loans banks knowingly gave. The question must be asked, why do we continue to allow these things to get so big? And this is a question with a million answers, and depending on your political affiliation you might have a different answer. Conservatives might come out with a rant about localism, and the need for big government and big business to get out of bed with one another and be cut down to size (because small towns with local establishments have never fallen victim to corruption, right?). Liberals might say that cronyism is a problem of the rich, who have hoarded money for themselves and their friends (because nobody who has money and hoards it is liberal, right?).
What the movie preaches implicitly more than anything it preaches explicitly is the collective moral failure that was exhibited by us as a country. Some moral failures are greater than others, yes. But this is simply of degree and not of kind. Greed is greed is greed, yes? And one of the parts that weren’t mentioned in the movie is that while the two mortgage brokers in Miami were giving terrible loans for no credit or income, the person signing and taking the loan was doing so without credit or income. This is an important thing to notice if we are to understand what happened during the financial crisis. It wasn’t just a crisis for the banks, but it was our crisis as well.
It wasn’t just the poor who were bamboozled, as though the rest of the middle class were toasting cocktail glasses in their homes while the rest of the American world burned. People bought what they knew they couldn’t afford, and did it thinking that their purchase was a good one; because, well, housing won’t go down, will it? Consider this. If I make $40,000 and my wife makes $40,000, then together we sneak into the middle class. Does that mean that I can then afford to pay for a $400,000 home? Of course it doesn’t. But that was precisely what people were doing in order to fulfill a certain type of dream. “Well, if I just own that house, then I’ll move into this status of American life,” one is tempted to think. That line of thinking isn’t fueled by the Big Banks, and isn’t fueled by lying mortgage brokers, but by rampant income inequality that creates a stark divide from the upper class and the middle class. And therein lies the end of the comedy and the beginning of the tragedy. Because while millions of Americans lost their homes, with nothing but spent money to show for it, the banks were bailed out, and the machine continued, virtually untouched, again.
#Real #FilmReview #TheBigShort #Recession #Economy #Greed #Tycoons #Banks
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