I was feeling hungry when I stepped into the theatre, not having enough time to buy dinner before the movie. Then when the first ten minutes of the movies seemed to me like a random flash of images and scenes, I was sure I would get annoyed really fast. On top of that, some moviegoers realised that they were at the wrong movie session so they had to excuse themselves from the theatre – not just one or two, but different groups left as well.
I thought that this would be one of those films when I wished I were somewhere else, or watched a different movie.
I was wrong. I’m glad I was wrong!
Now, I realise that the seemingly haphazard direction in the first minutes of the movie is some kind of tease by the director, Adam McKay. I haven’t seen any of his previous movies so I didn’t know what to expect. Slowly, his absurd approach to an essentially complex (and potentially boring) topic makes this movie shine. It’s like a car that revs and splutters at first, but zooms beautifully as it moves from gear to gear.
The movie is based on a book by Michael Lewis on how the financial sector crashed in the United States and all over the world in the early-2000s, due to the repackaging of mortgage-based funds. Risky sub-prime mortgage accounts were bundled up with good ones and sold to other investors as high-quality low-risk fund – also called CDO (collateralised debt obligations). Things were (and potentially are still) messier than this – you just need to watch the movie to see the extent!
The movie centres on a number of key characters: Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a nerd who suspects and predicts the collapse of the mortgage bubble in the US and then makes a bet for it by putting his company’s investment fund; Mark Baum (Steve Carrell) – a hedge-fund manager with an emotional baggage and a quest to uncover everything that is wrong with the financial system; and Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) – an ambitious bond salesman who decides to ‘short’ against CDOs. Some characters – like Baum and Vennett are pseudonyms for real characters. With such a potentially confusing area, The Big Short makes it highly compelling, highly watchable and manages to pack a punch – that greed is inherent in the financial sector and beyond (including the rating agencies and the government). Even now.
The absurdism, the ‘broken fourth-wall’ (where the actors speak directly to you), and the dry wit subtly infused in the story make The Big Short a brilliant chronicle of the financial circus in the early-2000’s. Hearing terms like sub-prime lending in the movie threw me back to my previous career – even before the Global Financial Crisis. The movie makes me so glad that I got out of finance at the end – although I spent around 11 years in various banks, I was never comfortable being called a banker – knowing that the name is reserved more for the likes of investment bankers and private bankers. I remember a moment in Singapore when I realised that I had to get out of banking before I corrupted my soul even more – it changed me into a person that I didn’t like. I stayed in banking for a while before finally stepping out in 2008.
So, don’t let the topic intimidate you or think that the movie about the financial crisis will be boring, this will open your eyes on how scary things were (… and still are).