, , , , , ,

The films that Brad Pitt produces are, insofar as I’ve watched them, universally interesting.

These include a number of top-tier releases (The Departed, Kick-Ass 1/2, Moneyball, World War Z, 12 Years a Slave, Fury) as well as some “indie” type productions (Killing Them Softly, The OA).  One gets the impression that he is personally backing the type of films that he believes (and it seems that I believe) that Hollywood should be making, but generally doesn’t. Of course, his production list includes many I haven’t watched, and probably more than a few I wouldn’t care to watch. That said, Pitt’s involvement is starting to feel like, if not an instant mark of approval, at least a mark of “this could be interesting.”

In this case, however, I had no idea until the opening credits started in that I was watching one of the above. The movie The Big Short was slated to come off of Netflix just after the first of the year, so I jumped on it before it disappeared.

Likewise, Pitt as an actor continues to surprise, also in a good way. I had dismissed him as a pretty boy without any real acting skills until I saw him in 12 Monkeys. Much like Depp and DiCaprio (of whom I had the same opinion back then), he has grown on me as the years have gone by. As one measure of acting ability, if I am unable to recognize the actor from movie to movie (Frances McDormand was my classic example of this), I assume I’m looking at a job well done. In this case, despite the fact that Brad Pitt’s face is actually on the “box cover,” I actually did not place him until several scenes in for him. Pitt plays Ben Rickert (based on real life ex-trader Ben Hockett) and does so convincingly enough for me that I just didn’t make the connection.

In fact all the actors (except maybe Christian Bale, who has blown me away more than once) are delivering performances beyond anything I expected from them. They are mostly light and/or comedic actors in a fairly serious movie. Furthermore, with the script jumping between characters whose lives only casually intersect, it would seem that the ability of the multiple lead actors would be critical to a successful film. The professional film critics seemed to agree; praise for the actors is a common theme in reviews of the film.

I believe I saw a review somewhere that suggested the film would have been a dud except for the excellent acting. With that I cannot agree. I actually have praise all around for this picture. Other reviews concentrated on how the film, like the book it was based upon, was written to help explain to regular folks how the mortgage crisis happened. Some praised or critiqued it on that account. Myself, I’ve read quite a bit on the subject already, so the level addressed by this movie wasn’t really over my head. Some have said that, despite efforts to make it easily digestible, many viewers still didn’t understand the “what” of the crisis and were only left with the sense that what happened was a system gone terribly wrong. That in itself might also be a measure of success.

The film uses a number of devices to help serve up the technical subject. In another context they could be considered cheap tricks, but I think they added to the real-life-as-black-comedy feel that made the movie. Frequent breaking of the fourth wall seems to be common these days, almost to the point of being overused. Yet it is some of my favorites that do it (I’m thinking House of Cards and Mr. Robot, right this second). The Big Short adds a flourish where the character turns to the movie audience and says, “it really didn’t happen that way.” By explicitly drawing attention to the artistic license used to make a real life event into an on-screen drama, I felt it enhanced both. Another trick is to use real celebrities, as themselves, to explain the technical details of Wall Street’s financial products. I don’t know how many finally understand mortgage backed securities having had it explained by a hot babe in a bubble bath, but to me, that’s entertainment.

I saw in an interview promoting the movie where Pitt expressed some admiration for Hockett in his willingness to prepare for difficult times. The admiration seems genuine, although Pitt says he is “too lazy” to actually put in the effort to (for example) be self-sufficiently growing food. Contrast that with the description of the character on Wikipedia as ” a paranoid and germaphobic retired former trader.” Maybe it says more about me than about Rickert/Hockett, but his level of paranoia and germaphobia seemed reasonable and prudent to me.

I seem to have a take on this movie perhaps a little different than the average Neflix watcher. One Netflix review begins “You’re not supposed to like the protagonists…” Another describes the characters as “An assortment of despicable people…” Is it simply that, as the villains of this tale are bankers, and the lead characters themselves are all bankers, most assume that the they are all bad to some degree? Or maybe it is a societal prejudice for those on the Asperger’s Spectrum?

Yes. Both. But I think there is another factor at play here. Imagine with me a situation.

We have a neighbor who is always talking about how this place where we live is long overdue for a huge storm; a hurricane of epic proportions. He has all kinds of stories about shifting ocean currents and how the powers-that-be-are ignoring the obvious, and how we’re all fools not to prepare for what is bound to happen. He’s mostly ignored – dismissed as a crank. He is not on the top of most lists for neighborhood party invite lists.

Imagine also, though, that as he describes what is going to happen when the storm hits, and the levee breaks, and we’re cut off from electricity for weeks on end – it is not fear and trepidation in his voice. No. He actually seems to be looking forward to this mini-apocalypse that he is predicting. In your mind, that probably adds to his unpleasant qualities.

Summer rolls into fall, and a Cat. 5 hurricane rolls right over our city, just as our unpleasant neighbor said it was going to do. All of his predictions (and presumably much of his advice) turn out to be dead on.

Think of it… do you know say “Boy, that guy was right all along. I probably should give him more respect than I have in the past?” Or do you hate him even more. Be honest.

Now imagine that you come to find out he was actually hoping, praying for his prediction to come true. As the hurricanes track seemed to shift from a harmless pass out to sea to smacking you right in the gut with its full force, he was watching the news saying “Please, please, please, please… YES!” Don’t you really hate him now? Do you even blame him for your own suffering? Just a bit?

Now, you know full well that no amount of sitting in front of your T.V. saying “please” is going to impact the track of a storm. Even if you do believe in the power of prayer, do you really believe that one man’s quest for schadenfreude drew God’s attention over the 10s if not 100s of 1000s of those praying for God to spare them? The rational part of your mind knows that full well, but the emotional part says, “It’s this guy’s fault. He WANTED this to happen.”

Now, imagine, in addition to stocking up on extra water and canned food, he bought some financial instruments the netted him a massive profit when the storm hit. He not only seemed to want the storm to come, he saw to it that he would profit from that storm. What do you think of him now? Do you hate him more than ever? Do you, perhaps, feel entitled to some of what he has… either the water and food he saved for his family, or the many, many millions he’s got from cashing in his Cat Bonds? If the power is out, and the police have fled, and nobody else is around, how far would you go to take your due from him?

After all, he is profiting from your misery. Right?

When I watched the movie, I have nothing but admiration for Dr. Burry as a visionary who saw what nobody else would see. The data right in front of everyone said that a collapse was inevitable, but he was one of the first to see it. Furthermore, he put himself on the line to prove he was right. I say this even though I, like most, personally suffered from the the crash from which he profited.

Part of why I respect this film’s characters is that, in a properly functioning financial markets, money is information. “Betting” on truth is itself a way to correct market failures, and perhaps a more effective one than just trying to warn people. Recall that the players in this tale did both – they not only invested against the mortgage market, but they explained why they were doing it. What is truly scary about the movie is to the extent it demonstrates that the markets were not, and almost certainly still are not, properly functioning. If being smart, or good, or right are all irrelevant, what is left that is relevant and what does that say about the next time we’re all about to get screwed over by the system?

Nothing good. That’s all I know.

Oh yeah. I still have yet to watch Fight Club. Sue me.