With Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Jeremy Strong, Brad Pitt, Marisa Tomei.
I am not sure if Michael Lewis in his book used Anthony Bourdain to explain how mortgages sold as something fresh and valuable and tasty, might be compared to three day old fish in a stew mixed around some perhaps fresher ingredients, but that is how Adam McKay generates some humor from a movie that otherwise has the potential to put us all into a permanent funk.
The subject is the collapse of the subprime mortgage market in 2007 and 2008 which led to the government bailing out a bank deemed too big to fail. The characters include several hedge fund managers who see the opportunity to cash in one of the greatest economic debacles ever. The outlook for the future is bleak since the system itself was not corrected, just one episode in it. I savored the scene in Standard & Poor’s office where Mark Baum (Steve Carell) as principal of a hedge fund group, visits an analyst to ask her some hard questions. Has the rating changed for subprime mortgages in the past several years even though the basis for them has changed? When she explains that the bankers would not accept a change in the ratings, but go to their competition, Baum calls her on the dishonesty. She in turn calls him a hypocrite because he stands to gain from the very thing that she is protecting when it fails. (Standard & Poor’s paid $1.2 billion in February 2015 as penalties for their role in the mortgage debt crisis.)
No one comes out clean. As Deutsche Bank’s Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) says, while pocketing his $47 million bonus, after millions of people lose their homes, “I never said I was the hero of this story.” Indeed there are no heroes in this story.
While explaining something impossibly complex, which leads masses of people to invest in fraudulent instruments, the movie shows that people who gain the most in the short term, such as realtors, are the ones most damaged by it. Some of them leave the game after it is over. Some of them are seen working in convenience stores, at job fairs.
I personally was affected by the markets during that period, and witnessed colleagues forced to work years longer than they intended to in order to retire. I could be bitter about it. But McKay’s intention is to make you think, not rue the day. Along the way, he entertains you with Michael Burry (Christian Bale), playing the drums in his office barefooted as he explains his Aspergerish approach to how he figured out how to make a huge fortune by reading all of the reports. Bale is his customary chameleon self, absorbing the salient parts of the character, and delivering a brilliant performance. Mark Baum (Steve Carell) has the most soul searching to do with a family touched by mental illness. His scenes with Marisa Tomei are extremely touching. There she is again bucking up whoever she appears with, making you pay extremely close attention. I didn’t even recognize Brad Pitt or Ryan Gosling until the movie was nearly over, they had disappeared so completely into their roles. The acting is the major dividend to the investment of time and money in this movie.