[Screen It]


(2015) (Christian Bale, Steve Carell) (R)

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Dramedy: A number of investors decide to short the subprime mortgage market before the financial collapse of 2007.
It's 2005 and socially awkward money manager Michael Burry (CHRISTIAN BALE), always on the lookout for a potentially lucrative investment, has discovered that highly rated, bundled mortgage bonds actually contain risky home loans, including those about to blow up in 2007 when their adjustable rates kick in.

Knowing those defaults are on the horizon, he wants to "short" the still booming housing market and has banks invent a financial instrument known as a credit default swap (basically insurance on the bonds) to make that a reality. Thinking he's foolishly throwing away his investors' money, they eagerly fulfill his request to the tune of a collective $1.3 billion, and amount that doesn't sit well with his boss, Lawrence Fields (TRACY LETTS).

At a bar, Wall Street banker Jared Vennett (RYAN GOSLING) hears of this development and tries to convince fund managers to invest in his credit default swaps. Due to a wrong telephone number, social crusader and short-tempered hedge fund manager Mark Baum (STEVE CARELL) and his team of analysts -- Vinnie Daniel (JEREMY STRONG), Porter Collins (HAMISH LINKLATER) and Danny Moses (RAFE SPALL) -- end up listening to Jared's pitch and consider the potential.

Also intrigued, but hearing about it a different way are young investor friends Jamie Shipley (FINN WITTROCK) and Charlie Geller (JOHN MAGARO) who've turned an initial investment of $110,000 into $30 million by investing in things people fear. Needing help to get in the game, they contact their former neighbor and mentor, retired banker Ben Rickert (BRAD PITT), who believes the world is headed south and is preparing for the worst, for help via his connections.

As all of those investors do their homework to make sure the credit default swap is a wise investment, the tipping point in the housing market is finally hit and things start falling apart, meaning a lot of money is going to be lost by many while a few stand to profit handsomely for a disaster few others could see coming.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
At this time of year, there are plenty of choices of big movies in theaters for people to see. Accordingly, you might hear conversations such as: "Hey, I really want to see the new 'Star Wars' film." "Me too, but I'm also interested in that Will Smith movie about concussions. I've heard it's really good." "Nah, I need a laugh, so I'm going to see that new Tina Fey and Amy Poehler film." "Hey, Isn't there a new Tarantino movie that's a western?"

What you probably won't hear is "Let's go to that movie about sub-prime mortgages, credit default swaps and the economic meltdown that nearly ruined our country." Yeah, I imagine the marketing folks over at Paramount were probably like, "You want us to promote a movie about what? Really? Are you sure? What's that? Oh, okay, phew...So Brad Pitt's in it. And so is Steve Carell. We can probably make that work. What's it called?"

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you "The Big Short," a film that if you haven't read the book on which it's based and thus know its tone, might sound as much fun as watching a movie about accountants crunching numbers, people filing records, or plumbers doing their thing. That's no offense intended toward anyone in those professions, but you probably get the gist. But if you skip the film based on a preconceived notion that a film about investments, economics and such is going to be boring, you're going to miss one of the more important, funny, horrifying and best films of the year. Trust me on that.

It's based on the 2010 book "The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine" by Michael Lewis (who also wrote the books on which "The Blind Side" and "Moneyball" were based). That work looked at the financial meltdown that crippled the U.S. economy in the mid 2000s and somehow wasn't seen coming by most. That is, except for a few savvy market players who figured it out, bet on the mortgage industry crashing in order to make money on that fall (known as "shorting," hence the film's title), and then watched in amazement as a corrupt system tried its mightiest to prevent that from happening.

I haven't read Lewis' book, but writer/director Adam McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph do a terrific job of preventing non-market savvy viewers from feeling like this material and its lingo are flying over their heads.

From time to time, characters break the fourth wall and talk directly to the camera to help us out (and the film is shot sort of like the TV show "The Office" where it's kind of like a documentary, including zooming and rack focusing, giving it something of a raw feel). There are also some funny cameo interludes where some real life people who aren't otherwise in the movie take us on a brief detour to explain some stuffy sounding material in an entertaining way.

While some of the material might otherwise still go over some heads, it's otherwise fairly easy to keep up as we follow a number of opportunistic investors who try to jump on this once-in-a-lifetime chance to make money, only to be shocked by what transpires after what they bet on doesn't exactly unfold the way any sane person would imagine.

Performances are solid to terrific across the board. Particularly outstanding is Carrel who continues to impress as he deepens his thespian abilities with his troubled and conflicted character here, and Bale who creates a completely credible, financially brilliant but socially awkward investor (and one who has a glass eye, which he also somehow makes believable).

While the synopsis might not make it sound like a fun time at the movies, all involved turn this into a thoroughly engaging, entertaining, funny and ultimately horrifying look at what happened to our financial system with hints it could be headed there again. One of the best films of 2015, "The Big Short" rates as a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed November 30, 2015 / Posted December 23, 2015

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