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'The Big Short': Hifalutin' Finance
By Michael S. Goldberger, iBerkshires Film Critic
05:54PM / Wednesday, December 30, 2015
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Watching director Adam McKay's "The Big Short," you don't know whether to laugh or cry over the bald-faced bamboozlement perpetrated by the banks, Wall Street and other moneyed interests not quite so easy to identify.

"How could it go on and on?" you ask, and then, in a sober reflection, remind yourself that practically every institution forming the fabric of our civilization looks pretty crooked when you put a magnifying glass to it. It's just that this one, the world of finance, has become especially adept at profiting from humankind's hypocrisy and greed.

But hey, as the catchphrase in the GEICO commercials says, "It's what they do." After all, we're grownups now. We can only hope that all the idealism and morality Mrs. Popper taught us in grammar school will temper the gluttony and at least suggest an opposing view to the Big Business mantra that says accumulating wealth is ultimately in the commonweal's interest.

Flash: news item to those poor suckers waiting for something to trickle down. It's coming. Why would they lie? Don't revolt. It's all your fault, anyway.   

The thing is, the witty sarcasm that weaves its way through this tale of financial woe and deceit illustrates in no uncertain terms that, to add insult to injury, the game isn't being played fairly.

Sure, the house always wins. But just to be certain that truism perpetuates, it has been further rigged, or fixed, if you prefer.

Tracing the steps of the bad investments that made a fragile and ultimately doomed house of cards out of our mortgage industry, McKay's delivery is both amusingly flippant and deadly serious. Based on the book, "The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine," by Michael Lewis, the screenplay introduces a few financial camps and shows how, via individual discovery and cross pollination, they developed a way to profit from the misery caused by unsound home loans.

Superb performances personalize all the numbers and stock market mumbo-jumbo that otherwise seem foreign to us artistic types. Combined with a narrative whimsy that patiently teaches us the libretto of the scandalous treachery leading up to the financial collapse of 2007-10, it is to McKay's credit that we actually think we understand what went down. While perhaps not really so, you don't need a police report to know you were mugged. This is a quiet violence, bereft of gunplay and explosions, but all the same compelling in its viciousness.

Two engagingly bright minds share center stage in this saga of hifalutin finance. Christian Bale is Michael Burry, the M.D. who founded Scion Capital and is credited with being the first to recognize that a killing could be made from betting against subprime mortgages. Equally brilliant, but eccentric in a more frenetic way, is Steve Carell as hedge fund guru Mark Baum (actually, Steve Eisman), who quickly picked up on the gambit and, obsessed by its whys and wherefores, takes us through his own corroboration of the impending credit bubble.

Ancillary to the hair-raising bit of recent economic history, an intrinsic moral question hovers in the background. But moving a giant step beyond Colonial-era sermons asserting that the Creator wanted us to become rich, this new breed of moneychangers scoffs at the implication of any ethical consideration. There is just legal and illegal. Failing to capitalize on a profit looking you right in the face is simply stupid.

Oh, Ebenezer, I feel you have backslid and joined the New Philistines ... $100M here, half a billion there, made for the same reason that one climbs Mt. Everest, without the slightest thought given to the folks affected. Yet it is telling that at the heart of the fiasco, the two biggest players to which we're made privy do indeed wrestle with their conscience. Both Messrs. Bale and Carell, whose characters win our tentative empathy pending the story's resolution, exact just the sort of emotional conflict that earns actors Oscar nominations.

However, the key participants and/or victims of the Great Recession that resulted from the subprime mortgage crisis aren't really mentioned until the epilogue notes the bailout paid with our pain and tax dollars. Once again we have met the enemy and he is us. The bad boy ran away from home, causing all sorts of havoc in his wake, and the government (that's you, me and Mrs. Delansky next door) embarrassingly paid his debts with nary a reproachful pat on the fanny.

In other words, shh…don't talk about it…that is until the next time those scalawags cook up another fire sale for us to extinguish, after they've palmed a profit. We are after all a society, and what are neighbors for? Well, at least we got a good film out of it. Trust me: A ticket to "The Big Short" proves a solidly entertaining investment.

"The Big Short," rated R, is a Paramount Pictures release directed by Adam McKay and stars Christian Bale, Steve Carrell and Ryan Gosling. Running time: 130 minutes

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