Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 10 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 1; Language 5; Sex 6/Nudity 6.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
The lover of money will not be satisfied with money;
nor the lover of wealth, with gain. This also is vanity.
And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a
foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came,
and the winds blew and beat against that house,
and it fell—and great was its fall!”
For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich
some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.
1 Timothy 6:10
It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.
On screen quotation from Mark Twain
To explain the financial crisis of 2008 director and co-writer Adam McKay takes us on a bumpy ride that makes us laugh at the financial antics of its diverse characters, cry silently when we see the financial devastation of millions of he people whom they swindle, and then hard to contain rage when we see at the conclusion that only one of these crooks was brought to trial and sent to prison. Bonnie and Clyde never stole a fraction of what these slick and sly financial robbers got away with, but there is no slow motion death for these guys. Indeed, they wind up so wealthy that they can leave their country clubs for strip clubs where they can afford to stuff the bikinis of pole and lap dancers with wads of high denomination bills.
Our tour guide is a fictionalized character Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) based on a real life trader at Deutsche Bank. Telling us that traditional banking was boring, he shows how various manipulators made it almost as exciting as Bonnie and Clyde’s adventures in robbing banks, but far, far more rewarding—and there is a happy ending for the robbers. The country, no, the world, might have been brought to the brink of ruin, but the robbers achieved the American Dream, and then some.
We follow the machinations of three groups of crooks—traders, bankers, and credit raters—as they discover that the housing industry is built on quick sand (think Jesus’ parable that ends the Sermon on the Mount), or more popularly, the lucrative housing boom is a bubble, so they create tongue twisting financial devices to sell to suckers, which they are betting on will fail.
A lot of the dark humor is interjected at several points by famous people clarifying a complicated point, an example being actress Margot Robbie explaining subprime and the housing bubble while sitting in a luxurious bathtub. Of course, she is soaking in bubble bath and sipping from a glass of bubbly champagne, telling us at the end of her explanation, “When you hear ‘subprime’, think ‘shit’.”
The actors also often break the “fourth wall” by speaking directly to the audience. The effect of all this is to keep the film moving along, there being so little action that it could have become a talking head documentary. The talented cast includes a screenfull of talent who keep up our interest despite the complexity of the financial details: Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Marisa Tomei, Jeremy Strong, Hamish Linklater, Rafe Spall, Adepero Oduye, Finn Wittrock, John Magaro, and more. By the end of the film my head was spinning, but I am sure my blood pressure must have risen due to the rising rage that these guys got rich by their deception and manipulation of a system. There ought to be a new definition of treason: the film’s title means the trader is betting against what he is selling, hoping that the product with the long name will fail. When it did, the whole country suffered. He was hoping for the ruin of his own nation! With such characters at large still enjoying their ill-gotten wealth and holding positions of power, I can only say, to quote one of my favorite novels, “Cry the beloved country!”
This review with a set of discussion questions is in the Jan. 2016 issue of Visual Parables.