Thursday, February 11, 2016

Oscar Talk: The Big Short

You've probably seen "The Big Short" by now, but if you watch this short preview, everything about it will come back to you.


It's all there -- the outsiders who question the received wisdom that home values only go up, that homebuyers never default on mortgages and that ever-increasing churn in the housing market was no threat to anyone.  It pins the blame on clueless greedy bankers and bond rating agencies.

We know how that worked out.

This is a curious movie about a more serious book.  Director Adam McKay, best known for the "Anchorman" and "Talladega Nights" comedies, brought an almost slapstick comedic slant to the story.  This, plus a talented cast of stars,  make "The Big Short" by far the most watched film treatment of the origins of Great Recession eight years ago.

The movie has been nominated for five Oscars:  best picture, best direction, best supporting actor (Christian Bale for a not very convincing performance), best adapted screenplay and best film editing.

Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post said this in her reivew;

       A wacky montage of expository speeches, hyperventilating meetings, revelatory
       encounters with corrupt brokers and their hapless marks . . . . "The Big Short"
       will resort to anything to grab the audience's attention, even if means having a
       character deliver his lines while brushing his teeth, or stopping the movie
       dead in its tracks for a celebrity tutorial on subprime mortgages or debt
       repackaging.

       McKay takes viewers by the lapels and shakes them until dizzied and dumb-
       founded, allowing the cinematic equivalent of look books and mood boards
       to do the heavy narrative heavy lifting for him.

This is all true but, as I said, it may have been the only way the film could have reached a broad audience.

So we have a champagne-sipping blonde in a bubble bath explaining subprime mortgages, a famous economist sitting at a blackjack table while Selena Gomez describes synthetic CDOs, and Ryan Gosling using a block-stacking Jenga game to demonstrate how defaults on risky home loans could crash an enormous bond market.

The cinematography is fast-paced and clogged with jerky scene-shifting shots, all the better to hold the attention of viewers with limited attention spans, which is most of us, I suppose.

The only plot line, really, is the developing understanding of several quirky Wall Street outsiders that masses of mortgages are likely to go into default, sooner rather than later, and to take much of the financial system down with them.

These characters are portrayed as thoughtful, insightful guys.  They made bets that seemed outlandish at the time but that made them very rich when the markets collapsed, a point that the New Yorker's Anthony Lane emphasized at the close of his review.

          So expert are the performers that you wind up rooting for Burry, Baum, and the
          others despite yourself, knowing full well that they are fueled by cynicism—by an
          ardent faith that the system will and must fail. They are little better than the bankers
          whose downfall they so gleefully engineer. “The Big Short” is a feel-good film about
          doom, and it pays the price. It bets on our indignation, and loses.

I'm not so sure I agree.

My reservations about the film concern its focus on a single part of the larger process that led to the Great Recession.  This may be understandable, given the complexity of the larger story, but the oversimplification makes "The Big Short" feel a bit like a two-hour Bernie Sanders ad.


The Bigger Story

The bad guys in "The Big Short" are greedy Wall Street bankers and ratings agencies that paid more attention to getting business than issuing honest opinions.  Certainly these folks deserve much blame.

But the deepest roots of the the mortgage crisis rest in Washington, D.C.  Twenty years ago, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) was tasked with promoting an "ownership society" that was championed through the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.  The idea was noble, maybe, but the results were harsh, not least for the intended beneficiaries.

In 2008, the Village Voice ran a hit piece on Andrew Cuomo, who ran HUD in the 90s and by 2008 was planning to run for governor of New York. Whatever you think of Cuomo or the Voice, the article's tracing of the policies that lit the flame of the mortgage mess is worth a read.


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