If Wall Street were a galaxy far, far away and the mortgage crisis was the first battle in its Star Wars, then Lewis Ranieri would be the evil emperor, Angelo Mozilo would be Darth Subprime, and hedge fund managers would skulk around like morally-ambiguous Jedis leveraging against the dark side in hopes of a huge score.
That's "The Big Short" in a cynically basic nutshell.
Adam McKay's new film is quite possibly the most effective piece of anti-Wall Street propaganda ever made. "The Big Short" is what Oliver Stone could have made had he been gifted the backdrop of a legitimate financial crisis, or a sense of humor. It manages to both humanize and revile the people that make up the financial sector all at once, making even the most anti-capitalist of audience root for fund managers trading against the well-being of everyday Americans.
And it will have a lot of people calling their brokers to say some sh!t.
Although there is no cut-and-dry protagonist in "The Big Short," the audience's guide is a fictionalized version of former Deutsche Bank trader Greg Lippmann, cannily played by Ryan Gosling as a charmingly self-aware, yet quite total, asshole. Gosling's trader character breaks the fourth wall constantly with acknowledgments that the behavior exhibited by himself and other characters is just beyond unforgivable. The character helps the audience understand how the crisis came to be by using celebrities to describe what MBSs, CDOs and credit default swaps are, and he is also the one that starts trying to sell swaps to hedge fund managers.
The Wall Street "hero" of the "The Big Short" might be (it's hard to say with certainty that there are any heroes) a fictionalized version of Steve Eisman embodied with angry moralism by Steve Carell. He bites on the Lippmann trade after a very affecting sequence that takes Eisman and his employees down to Florida where they see the mortgage bubble brought to life by a doomed middle-class family, an over-leveraged stripper and a pair of cosmically douchey mortgage brokers who McKay uses as a bathos-drenched reference to Countrywide.
While "The Big Short" is unclear on heroes, it is rife with villains. An evil CDO manager bragging about his close relationship with Merrill over a Las Vegas sushi dinner with Eisman, a literally vision-impaired S&P executive (heavy-handed but usably funny) and most of all, the economic ghost of Lewis Ranieri.
The movie is based on a Michael Lewis book so it's no surprise that the script would have some character assassination of the man that invented morgtage backed securities at Salomon Brothers, but "The Big Short" takes pains to show that Ranieri was the human hell mouth from which the financial crisis was sprung.
Gosling's Lippmann character narrates a short reenactment at the very top of the film in which a fat, bearded actor playing Ranieri spills some food on his shirt, rubs the stain into a larger smudge and then yells out "Let's make some money" to a very old and gross trading floor. The voice-over then describes Ranieri's creation as "A monstrosity that collapsed the world’s economy."
Towards the end of the film, Carell's Eisman character debates legendary bull investor Bill Miller in a somewhat preposterous set-piece that has them arguing about the strength of Bear Stearns stock while the suits watching them are simultaneously observing Bear' stock plunging towards zero on their Blackberries. Eisman then literally invokes Ranieri's name in a Hollywood speech that pretty much pins the downfall of the U.S. housing market on that greedy beardo slob from the first reel.
That kind of subtlety crops up over and over again, with many characters bragging about their insipid selfishness and joyfully staring down the looming crisis. Even when the "better" characters do something "good" they mange to get in shots along the lines of "That's pretty f@cking immoral, even for Wall Street."
But for those that love Wall Street, what will be most terrifying about "The Big Short" is that it works so well.
Even though the audience roots for the Lippmann and Eisman characters (along with a duo of "garage band hedge fund managers" expertly used as ingenue types mentored by a priggish Wall Street refugee who is played sleepily by Brad Pitt) McKay is clear at the end of the film that even our heroes are rather sh!tty people who made millions betting against the livelihood of their fellow human beings.
When we last see Gosling's character, he is thumbing a $47 million bonus check earned by predicting the catastrophe. "I can feel your disgust," he says to the fourth wall. "It's palpable."
And it is.