In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king, and in the world of subprime mortgage lending, those who can see just how badly it’s going to fail can make a killing. That’s the basic premise of The Big Short, the story of how a small group of mavericks, introverts and visionaries saw the truth of what was going on in Wall Street and the U.S. lending industry and how they could bet against the system to succeed when everyone else would so disastrously flounder.
The film is based on a book written by the eminent financial journalist Michael Lewis, Liar’s Poker, which was an account of his time working for Salomon Brothers during the 1980s. The book has since become an international bestseller, and the film is due for release next month, starring a stellar cast including Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling and Steve Carrell, who looks set to add another great role to his IMDb page since his move from comedy to drama, something he first set upon in Foxcatcher. The film is both that age-old classic tale of a bunch of self-imposed outcasts outsmarting the system, and a timely look at how greed spread through the system to become a cancer that infected not just Wall Street but the entire planet.
Take Michael Burry played by Christian Bale. Once on course to become a neurologist, he decided that people bored him, and since he was getting as much done in three hours of financial blogging as he was in sixteen-hour shifts on rotation, he left medicine, founded his own hedge fund and played the system to make so much money he could pick and choose investors. Steven Eisman, transfigured here as Steve Carrell’s character Mark Baum, walked out of a meeting where he told the manager of a brokerage firm, having described said manager as clueless about money, to go to the toilet and never went back.
Whether the film will manage to capture such examples of out of the box thinking in quite the same way as Lewis’s prose remains to be seen, not least because it makes no comprise on giving us the fiscal equivalent of geek speak. Unsurprisingly, as a result of this, preview reviews of this film have been mixed. The Guardian felt too much was crammed into too little, while the Hollywood Reporter wasn’t overly impressed by how Margot Robbie taking a bubble bath with a glass of Champagne seems to be considered an appropriate way to explain subprime mortgages (imagine a house where those at the bottom take the most risk but reap the highest rate of interest, while those at the top take the least risk, and smallest rate of interest on repayment, but, crucially, get repaid first), but will likely get people watching for a different reason.
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Hopefully this film is as great a success as the book was, but the book has an advantage. You can read at your own pace. If you don’t understand something you just go over it again or Google it. If you want, you can stop reading. In the cinema the film will go at its own pace, whether or not you can keep up with it.
By Gareth Wood