Boo Banks! A Bitter Pill and a Bitter Movie
By Skip Sheffield
Hate banks? Me too. So apparently do a number of A-list Hollywood stars.
Inspired by actual events, “The Big Short” is about a small group of smart young financial analysts who predicted the real estate meltdown of 2008 and benefitted by it. It is an angry picture; a first drama directed by Adam McKay, who teamed with Will Ferrell to produce the silly comedies “Step Brothers” and “Anchorman.” The script is by true story specialist Michael Lewis (“Moneyball,” “The Blind Side”), who adapted his book “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine.”
Christian Bale plays the ringleader of the prognosticators, Dr. Michael Burry, a neurosurgeon-turned hedge fund manager. What Dr. Burry lacks in social graces he makes up with sheer intelligence. He has studied thousands of mortgages and has concluded most will default within a few years when variable-rate interest kicks in.
When Mark Baum (Steve Carell in a bad toupee) hears Dr. Burry’s theory, he is on board. Baum is an in-your-face pushy alpha-male. Marisa Tomei is his subordinate wife Cynthia.
Baum’s cohorts include Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock). With the help of retired bank insider Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), the quartet is buying up bonds they know are “junk,” and they will sell them just before they surely default; in essence betting on their failure. In the course of their research, the men discover that banks have not only been making risky loans to under-financed people, they are engaging in practices that are actually illegal.
Florida is specifically cited as a state where outrageously risky home loans have been approved. Hastily-constructed vacant tract homes are listed as worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, with those empty houses as collateral.
Tension builds as the traders bet ever more on disaster, betting against higher-ranked bonds. These guys are not heroes. They are driven by greed, but they are appalled by the immorality and illegality of major financial institutions. You will appalled too, and angry that somehow banks wrangled a bailout by taxpayers. That’s you and me. While I never defaulted on my mortgage, I did see the value of my house cut in half by the time I was forced to sell it. It was a bitter pill and this is a bitter movie.