In the mid-2000s, the banks that serve as the pillars of the U.S. financial system defrauded the American people, caused the worst global economic crisis since the Great Depression, and essentially got away with it. Only one executive went to jail for a calculated and widespread corruption that tainted every echelon of the U.S.’s top-tier financial institutions, from JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs to the since- collapsed Bear Stearns, AIG, and Lehman Brothers. Millions of Americans lost their jobs, homes, pensions, and retirements, and the big banks that survived the crash were compensated by the U.S. government with a multitrillion-dollar taxpayer bailout. What a disgrace. What a story.
Adam McKay must have thought so. The Big Short, a ruthless comedy based on Michael Lewis’s nonfiction book The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, is something of a departure for McKay, best known for goofball romps like Anchorman and Step Brothers. In directing The Big Short, he employs a more crafty and sardonic approach: lecturing, testing, inveigling, and even dressing down his viewer to listen up, damn it, because the U.S. subprime mortgage crisis—as boring as it sounds when shrouded in purposefully abstruse financial jargon—is not as inscrutable as the one-percenters would have you think. The system is complex by design, the film maintains, to keep the insiders protected and the outsiders, until their world comes crashing down around them, blissfully oblivious. In fact The Big Short sees as much danger in a passive, too-trusting, and easily distracted culture as in Wall Street’s insatiable greed or the federal government’s lack of oversight.
McKay’s gimmicks shouldn’t land as well as they do, but the film succeeds because its indignation is righteous and earned. Most of The Big Short‘s bitter humor is injected via the fourth-wall-breaking character of Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), a Brillo-haired Wall Street trader who stares languidly into the camera with a teasing smirk on his lips. “It’s pretty confusing, right?” Vennett asks the audience after a stream of money talk. “Doesn’t it make you feel bored or stupid? Here’s Margot Robbie in a bathtub to explain. . . . ” Cut to the Wolf of Wall Street actress soaking in a bubble bath and sipping a glass of wine as she delivers a primer on mortgage-backed securities. “When you hear subprime,” Robbie warns. “Think shit.” The celebrity cameos persist—Anthony Bourdain popping up to explain collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) while chopping fish, Selena Gomez demonstrating the domino effect of synthetic CDOs by losing a game of blackjack in a casino—but they all serve a purpose. The economy may not be sexy to the masses, but money itself, debauchery, and beautiful people most certainly are.
McKay cowrote The Big Short‘s screenplay with Charles Randolph (Love and Other Drugs), and they know how to keep an audience engaged, broadcasting this knowledge often, as both parody and indictment. The film moves at a quick clip, often surprising one with a random jump cut or freeze frame, as if to say, “Pay attention!” Names, quotes, keywords, and definitions materialize onscreen as they’re spoken, adding punch and clarification, and just as quickly disappear. Other characters make asides to the camera to point out what is true about their interactions and what isn’t, keeping the audience on its toes. Flashes of mid-2000s commercials and music videos abound, and popular songs of the time, like Ludacris and Pharrell Williams’s “Money Maker,” are peppered throughout.
But for all of the self-aware snark and superciliousness, The Big Short is an underdog story at heart. Three characters in particular contribute some moral sensitivity to the otherwise jaded proceedings: Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a brilliant hedge fund manager who detects the housing credit bubble in 2005 and accurately predicts its burst; Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), a disillusioned former Wall Street trader turned lone wolf; and Mark Baum (Steve Carell), a principled money manager who convinces his team to begin shorting—betting against—securitized subprime home mortgages after Vennett inadvertently alerts them that the vast majority of these mortgages are fraudulent. Baum, Burry, Rickert, and Vennett may seem well intentioned and outspoken against corruption, but their motives are complicated by their knowing they could make a fortune. In the end they all profit from the crisis, with Baum and Rickert expressing only a modicum of remorse for how they cashed in on other people’s pain.
Burry, Rickert, and Baum are outsiders, and though that doesn’t automatically redeem them, it does render them more sympathetic. Burry (the only character named after his real-life counterpart) is bothered by the reactions of others to his glass eye and antisocial behavior, but he speaks his mind anyway, insisting that the housing market is propped up by bad loans. Rickert is drawn back into the business by a pair of twentysomething entrepreneurs who spot trouble in the system, but later chastises them for celebrating their own financial windfall. “You know what I hate about banks?” Rickert growls. “They turn people into numbers.” And Baum, wracked with guilt following his brother’s suicide, throws himself into the unpopular job of exposing injustice, financial or otherwise, wherever he can find it. “He was having bad thoughts,” Baum confides in his wife, when the death finally hits him. “And my first thought was to offer him money.”
Even Vennett has his conciliatory moments. At one point he reveals how “numbers guys” are able to assert such power over everyone else: through obfuscation and alienation. They want you to think that they’re the only ones smart enough to understand, he says. There have been several decent films about the 2008 financial meltdown, including J.C Chandor’s drama Margin Call (2011) and Charles Ferguson’s Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job (2010). The Big Short is the most incisive. Its method of pedagogy may be too acerbic for some tastes, but maybe that’s what people need in this instance: to be rudely shaken awake. v