The Big Short is a surprise, but not for its revelations about the US housing bubble of the mid-2000s and the resultant collapse of the global financial system in 2008. The surprise is not how most of those shady dealers and financial crooks got away with it, nor is it that the US government bailed out their institutions. Those are facts of history, and the subject matter of the film. The big revelation is that this capable, playful comedy-thriller was made by Adam McKay, whose last directing credit was the insightful broadcasting drama, Anchorman 2.
The good news is that if you thought my initial pronouncements were spoilers, then this is the film for you. One of the more successful aspects of The Big Short is its educational dimension, which is handled so deftly and covered with enough silly, sensationalist sugar you’d swear McKay’s didacticism tasted like an absurdist comedy. For example, the film is narrated by Ryan Gosling’s glib, overly-tanned, stock market slimeball, Jared Vennett. Vennett functions as both a documentary-style, omniscient “voice of God,” explaining contexts and background details, and an unreliable Scorsese-like narrator, often chiding the audience, “I told you so.”
At several points in The Big Short, Vennett invites celebrities to make cameos to explain a technical detail of the financial system. Margot Robbie in a bubble bath explaining subprime mortgage loans is so obviously a sugared pill it also acts as an ironic statement on didacticism in cinema, exposing how the film has to appeal to our basest desires in order to deliver its informational message. This extra, ironic layer keeps the film from being simply honeyed medicine, but it is also a comment on that awful requirement. The openness of such asides indicts the film, and by extension implicates Hollywood, in the very system of manipulating people’s desires that it’s criticising in Wall Street. The intertextual reference to The Wolf of Wall Street only underscores the film’s awareness of issues of depiction equalling endorsement.
Other characters will occasionally turn to the camera and break the fourth wall, adding in a detail about their character and motivations. The Big Short gleefully wears its fiction on its sleeve—the fact that it’s not a record of the actual characters and events but merely a depiction—at the same time that it’s driving home an earnest critique, and educating the audience about, an all-too-real issue. The formal choices also highlight the mix of fact and fiction, which is essentially the problem with our current financial system. What is real? People are making money off of trading fictitious value—bundles of other people’s debt. McKay utilizes docu-real handheld camerawork for most of his dramatic scenes, while splicing in found-footage montages that recall the filmic essays of Michael Moore. Vennett’s final joke only underscores the blend of farce and tragedy in both the film and reality.
McKay has assembled an all-star cast, and The Big Short very consciously highlights what an old boys’ club finance still is. Gosling’s a lot of fun as Vennett, but Bale and Carell get to deliver more serious performances. The woes of Bale’s incredibly awkward and intelligent Michael Burry, a shy investor who reads the fine print and sees the collapse coming, but who is not believed, underscores how much image and illusion drive the financial system. Burry wears lived-in, baggy t-shirts and flipflops. We tend to trust our money to suits and offices more than the actual numbers, and it’s no surprise his clients panic when he wants to bet big against the system. Carell plays Mark Baum, a cynic insider hoping for things to tumble down, and Brad Pitt, in a fairly small and subdued role, is Ben Rickert, a wisened former-banker, sick of the system, who helps two youngsters (John Magaro, Finn Wittrock) get rich off the collapse.
The only place The Big Short falters is with the ending. Earlier scenes go out of their way to make things clear to the viewer, but later on it’s a bit murky how exactly everyone gets their big payout. We see the characters panicking and then collecting money. We could use a few more scenes of B between A and C.
Finally, the film, with its narrative about a handful of investors betting against the system, makes the cynic in us question our own motivations to see everything tumble down. The Big Short is a kind of heist film as well as a kind of underdog “based on a true story” drama, but in this film the underdog heroes win if the global financial system—the one that exists in the real world and determines much of our lives—collapses. Who should we really be cheering for? I still don’t know.
8 out of 10
The Big Short (2015, USA)
Directed by Adam McKay; screenplay by Charles Randolph and Adam McKay, based on the book by Michael Lewis; starring Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, John Magaro, Finn Wittrock, and Brad Pitt.