Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Big Short: How to Turn Misery to Comedy

By slicing different kinds of leftover fish, a chef can make a seafood stew more appealing to diners than three-day old halibut.

By slicing and bundling toxic subprime mortgages with more dependable kinds, mortgage lenders before 2007 turned junk loans into gold-plated junk that bedazzled big-name investors world wide.  The guys who first recognized the fraud behind that alchemy are the subject of The Big Short, a film directed by Adam McKay, based on Michael Lewis's book.

By slicing up the arcane technical details, human malfeasance and misery of the housing collapse and mixing in elements of buddy movies, mockumentary, and social satires like Network, McKay and his creative team have turned a grim and potentially dry subject into a sharp-edged comedy that keeps us alert and involved, laughing and sometimes crying.

So The Big Short's form follows its content.   Like playwright Tom Stoppard, McKay flies off on tangents to make sure we get the subject from different angles.  We get dictionary definitions, witty epigrams, a straightforward lecture from a super-model in bubble bath, and a demo of sub-prime "CDO's" with that celebrity chef's fish stew.  Characters make snarky asides to the audience during dramatic scenes.  A stripper writhing and caressing herself comes to the realization that her loan-fueled investments in five houses might be risky.

In an interview on Atlanta's local NPR station WABE, author Michael Lewis spoke with awe and appreciation of the lead actors Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, and Ryan Gosling.  He said that they were professional, devoted craftsmen, meeting him and the characters they portray, putting their time and whole minds into mastering the financial background to their characters' stories.

With all the laughter, the moments that stick out most were moments that brought characters to the point of dismay and pain:

  • Ryan Gosling's character stuns Steve Carrell and his cohort with the observation, "You guys think of yourselves as cynical, but you still trust that the system is basically fair."
  • The door opens to a McMansion in a deserted suburban development to reveal a big bruiser with tattoos, who seems threatening at first, but vulnerable and broken when he learns on-camera that his rent checks have gone to a landlord delinquent on mortgage payments: hugging his little boy, he wonders what he'll do if his family is evicted.  This makes an impression, and sets up a heart-stopping moment later when we see the father and mother trying to hold their family together living in their car.
  • A rep at Standard and Poor's apologizes for having to wear those flimsy sunglasses that optometrists provide, an odd and distracting detail, until the characters' questions make her reveal the truth: that her company doesn't dare give an honest rating to these junk products.  When she takes that clumsy visor off, her eyes express more than her words.
  • Christian Bale is totally convincing as the obsessive fund manager with a glass eye and the insight to see the coming financial meltdown before anyone else.  He's "pent up" in every sense of the phrase, guarded in emotions, holed up in his glassed office, often playing heavy metal music on speakers or earbuds to shut out the world.  As his character gambles with millions to make billions, all of his associates abandon him.  It's harrowing to watch him play drums in a sealed-off room at his home, releasing his pent-up feeling, but bringing no comfort.  
  • Steve Carrell's character "Mark Baum" comes across at first as the world's most egocentric jerk, but we come to appreciate what drives him.  It's not ego, but guilt.  His catharsis -- seated with his long-suffering wife -- brings sympathy from us.
  • "Mark Baum" has a couple more epiphanies that hit the audience hard.  One occurs at interview with a smug billionaire financier at dinner in Las Vegas, watched at the next table by Ryan Gosling and friends.  We get a play-by-play on what Baum is feeling, and a freezed frame at the precise moment that Baum realizes that the world's economy could collapse, and one-second flashes of scenes from the actual financial Armageddon.
  • Another epiphany happens when, suspicious, Baum asks his partners why two cocky young mortgage brokers freely confess their unethical loans to "Ninjas" ("No Income, No Job") and poor immigrants.  The answer is a kick in the gut:  "They're not confessing; they're bragging."
  • Two other characters on the periphery of the main story are their own buddy-picture, which might be called their "excellent financial adventure."  With their mentor, a disenchanted Wall Street Banker played by Brad Pitt, they pull off the deal that will make them rich, and they do their end-zone celebratory dance.  Pitt's character stops them, conjuring up the misery that this financial meltdown will cause.  It hits them, and us, hard.
On a totally personal note, I recognized some of these events from my own experience with the housing bubble.  A house that my mom bought for an investment of $87K in 1990 sold to me for $103K in 1999.  There were scads of forms to fill out, guarantees of income, inspections, repairs required, a coupon book for making monthly payments, etc., etc., etc.

But around 2002, acting on a whim, I stepped into the show room of a mortgage lender to look into refinance.  It was wall-to-wall atmospherics, airy, cobalt blue, animated video presentation at the entrance, and, behind glass partitions, sleek uncluttered tables with padded chairs.  Attractive young women and men roaming the room nabbed me.  I signed a few papers and walked out an hour later with over $103,000 and no obligation to pay back anything at all before a huge balloon payment due some years later.

It felt too good to be true, and I sensed that I had fallen into a trap.  I resolved to get out of this agreement a.s.a.p.  I paid off my old mortgage, fixed up the house with money saved by skipping monthly payments, sold the house for $136K, got rid of that other loan, and bought my present home with a conventional fixed-rate mortgage for $165.  Just before the bubble burst three years later, it was appraised near $200K; its value fell to $145K before the rebound.

In an epilogue, the movie warns us that it's all happening again. with CDO's (old halibut) under a new name, and skyrocketing values.  (My own house is up to $190K again).  Oh, yes:  the seer played by Christian Bale, the one who foresaw the coming collapse in supposedly secure market, is now invested solely in water.

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