I Me Mine I Me Mine I Me Mine

The Big Short  A film by Adam McKay

The problem is human greed.  That was my conclusion after watching the terrifically entertaining and stomach-churning film The Big Short.  People have all kinds of solutions: we’ve got to break up Wall Street, we’ve got to punish the banks, we’ve got to put people in jail, but I don’t believe that any amount of punishing and regulating and jailing will do the trick.  “The best minds in America are in business,” my first father in law used to say—well aware that I had no interest in business whatsoever—and I’m not sure, forty-five years later, that I don’t agree.  No matter how many rules you make, how many people you punish, somebody’s going to figure out how to beat the system, make a pile of money, and have the last laugh.  Until he gets screwed over and somebody laughs at him.

The genius in this case is a man named Michael Burry, played with autistic type weirdness by Christian Bale, sitting in an office that is all glass, wearing gym shorts and t-shirts, playing loud rock music and banging along with drumsticks.  He sees that the bond market, based on a stack of crummy housing mortgages, is about to collapse—he can see exactly when it will happen, because he’s hired people to comb through computer files and figure it out—and he finds a way to wager on the collapse.  I sound vague as I say all this, but I understood at the time, because the film has entertaining explanations by people like Margot Robbie and Selma Gomez.  I kept saying to myself, I get it, I get it.  And then I walked out of the theater and forgot it.

In any case, Burry’s conviction that the bond market will collapse—something that has never happened before—is regarded as sheer folly by all the firms he goes to, and his willingness to bet on that, and the extent to which he wants to do that, bring jaw-dropping delight to the eyes of the investment managers he visits.  This guy doesn’t just look like he’s nuts, they seem to be thinking, he really is nuts.  He maintains this conviction despite utter panic from people who have invested with him, because he needs to maintain staggering monthly premiums to make this bet.  But he’s certain the market will collapse.

Less certain, but more engaging, are a couple of guys who started an investment firm in a garage, Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magno); they have a guru named Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) who has dropped out of the financial world altogether but is willing to come back long enough to make them a fortune.  More sympathetic by far is Mark Baum (Steve Carell), a renegade investor who deplores the shenanigans of the big bankers and discovers the soon-to-collapse bond market to his horror, furious that people are profiting from something they know will lead to disaster.  Nevertheless, he and his investing group, like Shipley and Geller, make the same kind of wager Burry has, though on a smaller scale.

This is another one of those fast-paced, I’m walking through the crowded streets of Manhattan talking on my cell phone types of movies (has some film critic written a dissertation on how different contemporary movies are because of the cell phone?  Run out and do that, somebody).  It’s like Spotlight, only people are chasing money instead of sexual predators.  But it’s similar because: we know what will happen; we lived through this thing ourselves; it’s all in the past and we seem to have recovered (or have we?  That’s the perpetual question).  It has a terrific cast, wonderful acting.  But this is the same director that brought you Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgandy, and this is the first film he has directed that hasn’t starred Will Ferrell.  We’re in the realm of entertainment here.  He’s entertaining us with financial collapse.

You root for these guys to win.  They’re going to make those fat cats pay.  Yet winning, in this case, means that the entire economy of the country collapses, and that millions lose their jobs and their homes.  And the question is, if you’re Mark Baum—to his credit, the last person to finally cash in—and you have $200 million (his share of the winnings) and everyone else is in ruins, how do you feel?  What do you do to celebrate?  Go out and laugh at poor people?

And as my wife said when the movie ended, What are we supposed to do?  This film shows quite clearly what happened, makes it clear that the same thing, or something very much like it, could happen again.  A movie like this is a call to action, but what action is that?

The truth is that everybody’s greedy.  The man who created this bond market in the first place—we see him as a distant historical figure—the people who invest in the bonds, the bankers who sell people these mortgages knowing that they will fail, even the people who buy the houses they know they can’t afford.  These are large and small examples of greed, and you can’t fault someone who wants a nice house for his family, but it’s all greed.

There’s a scene in this movie where Mark Baum is in a VIP room with a naked stripper who’s doing a lap dance—“You can touch me,” she says—and he’s interviewing her on the several properties she’s bought as an investment.  She knows the mortgages don’t have a fixed rate, but the banker told her she can just get new mortgages when the time comes.  She’s a working girl trying to set aside a nest egg for a time when her body is no longer one that begs to be touched.  (“Could you stop moving?” Baum says.)  The person we really need to worry about—we meet one of these people—is the poor schmuck who’s renting from her, and dutifully paying his rent.  He’ll have nothing when he’s thrown out.

We’re all connected, as the great spiritual teachers tell us.  If we hurt someone else we’re really hurting ourselves.  If I win the bet, somebody else had to lose.  How can I feel good in that situation, knowing that?

So we walk out of this movie feeling wonderfully entertained, as if we’d seen a major work of comic art.  This is better than Ron Burgandy!  But we also feel hollow inside, because of what the film is telling us.  And we have no idea what to do.

Who’s going to tell us, Will Ferrell?