The best possible thing about Adam McKay’s Oscar-nominated PGA-winning biography of the 2007-08 financial meltdown The Big Short, based on the book by financial journalist Michael Lewis, is what mostly all of its supporters say about it: it really does make a complicated and imperative subject accessible and understandable in every way. This is coming from someone for whom Macroeconomics was out-and-out his worst subject in high school (and I had the best possible teacher for that subject, my hand to God). The movie’s documentation of the complex and messy fact of what the fuck happened in when the streak of fraudulent mortgages led to an economic bubble that destroyed the US economy and, in turn, the world economy dedicates most of its energy to allowing the audience to follow along with what our “heroes” are finding and how it leads them to this devastating conclusion. I could very easily see it used in a high school economics class, while I don’t suddenly consider myself any more knowledgeable on the subject than I was before, it really guided me along in the moment of the film itself.
I’m not going to say the worst thing about The Big Short is how it works as a movie, for it’s not anywhere near a bad film. But its aesthetical choices, painting it as just another Wolf of Wall Street with all its wildin’ whiz-bang and gags providing unnecessary irreverence to a topic that demands our taking seriously, do not aid it the way that its purpose as a film does.
In any case, what that purpose is is to spread across the story of three different parties (technically four, but two of them work together) who made note of the upcoming economic collapse and in turn moved to cash in on it – first in 2005, Michael Burry (Christian Bale) discovers the majority of loans that the housing market is founded upon have alarmingly little chance of being paid back as they are subprime and creates a credit default swap market so he can start betting against the housing market.
His actions catch the attention of Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), a bond salesman, who immediately catches up on what’s going to happen and begins shorting the housing market as well, despite going against his own employer Deutsche Bank in the process. Vennett inadvertently catches the attention of a hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carrell) and of up-and-coming hedge fund partners Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock). Geller and Shipley bring in Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to help them trade in the Mortgage Securities Forum, while Baum reluctantly teams up with Vennett.
Baum and Rickert are complete pessimists in the action they are involved in, Baum especially makes up the moral spine of the story when he’s the one who actively investigates why the market is at the state it is in before profiting off of the mess that comes of it. And yet, the main problem with the movie’s style is that it’s way too excited about what’s going on, especially since the majority of the movie is narrated by Vennett, who spits it all out in his own pseudo-Belfort slickness and with a trivialising attitude towards everything that’s going on. And the likewise levity the movie chooses to adopt – namely in Hank Corwin’s Oscar-nominated editing (ugh!) – drowns out all of the doom that Baum and Rickert are desperately trying to communicate to the world. Even in the manner of its explaining the minutiae of the discussions, McKay chooses to adopt specifically flashy asides featuring celebrities such as Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain, and Selena Gomez lecturing the audience briefly before returning to the matter at hand.
What of course is most unfortunate is that the movie probably wouldn’t succeed at being so informative if it wasn’t so shallow like this, as it assumes the audience would not be interested with Margot Robbie being in a bubble bath drinking champagne while informing us on subprime loans. And yet it’s a double-edged sword, as it’s just an attempt to make everything these guys do to fuck over the little guy seem so cool. At least when The Wolf of Wall Street took on its facile attitude it was to reflect the protagonist’s amorality.
Speaking of The Wolf of Wall Street, another thing The Big Short adopts from that film is simply an inconsistent editing style. There’s no real rhythm behind its choice of fourth wall breaks (Vennett passes in and then suddenly another character gets to talk to the audience as well because we clearly need a guide, before losing that privilege suddenly)nor is there one in the moments where it decides to amp up its comedic elements. It would also probably help if you’re simply not a fan of Adam McKay’s earlier comedy ventures – Step Brothers and other Will Ferrell comedies – which, lo and behold, I ain’t that guy who likes those movies. Humor is super subjective, I came for what the movie had to say, and instead it goes “lol look at that gator in the pool” when we’re meant to be dismayed at another family being forced out of their home. Maybe I’m just chastising the movie’s attitudes like Rickert kills the joy out of Geller and Shipley when it’s clear they are profiting off of the suffering of others.
The acting’s not terrible – Gosling is disappointingly inert, but Carrell is the total opposite of his previous big drama performance in Foxcatcher. He’s human and broken and conflicted in a believable manner that it’s hard to argue he is not the closest thing we have to a “hero” while still retaining a straight man comic timing. Magaro and Wittrock don’t have half of Carrell’s comic timing, but they do have that dynamic follow-up on their characters’ rise to the top only to find how horrifying the view still is from the top. Pitt controls every scene he appears in by bringing the mood very much down low. The one big anomaly I have a problem with is Christian Bale and that’s not only that his character’s contribution to the story essentially ends at Act 1 and returning to him just feels unnecessary, but because it’s exactly like Carrell’s performance in Foxcatcher. It’s totally a bunch of notes, it’s an actor getting caught acting, it doesn’t feel like Bale is at all lost in the character. The fact that it was expendable to the film just makes me more disappointed in it. The fact that it’s the one performance out of this ensemble to get an Oscar nomination leaves me bemused.
Yet a lot of The Big Short leaves me bemused. Some deliberate in the content, much unfortunate in the presentation of that content. It’s not a bad movie, I don’t think. Truth be told, for the first time in years, I think none of these Best Picture nominees are “bad” (though, lawdy, The Revenant gets closest out of them all), but The Big Short is made in sure an amateurish manner that it’s recognition for anything except telling the American public what truly happened to their money in a coherent manner is frustrating. But maybe it’s just that the value in its message is enough to give it that sort of spotlight.