The Big Short: Laugh, Cry, Rage, Or All Of The AbovePosted: December 12, 2015
The thing about “docudramas” is that, while the really well-made ones can be thrilling and engaging and impactful (see: Spotlight), they are also very likely going to be understated, dry affairs to some extent or another. A stylized approach is never really expected for films that purport to directly dramatize real-world events, especially if they also want to educate the audience in the process. But with The Big Short, Adam McKay says “fuck that shit” and takes the dry and intellectual subject of the financial crisis and turns it into a furious, irreverent expose that entertains as well as any other movie this year while also being informative and intelligent. This is angry, provocative filmmaking, that illuminates and drives home exactly how much the elite financial world fucked us all over, and demonstrates how everyone basically allowed it to happen out of ignorance, stupidity, ego and greed.
The film follows four major storylines, and one of the interesting aspects of the film is how these stories barely interact with each other beyond the initial domino effect that gets things rolling. We start with Michael Burry (Christian Bale) an antisocial financial whiz who begins to spot the discrepancies in the housing market and makes insurance investments against them. This in turn inspires New York broker Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling, also our omniscient narrator) to begin to make the same moves, and when Vennett accidentally calls a wrong number he brings this opportunity to the attention of Mark Baum (Steve Carrell), who hates the shitty practices on Wall Street and wants a chance to stick it to the big boys. At the same time, Vennett’s discarded prospectus draws in upstarts Jamie Shipley and Charlie Geller (Finn Wittrock and John Magaro) who turn to their neighbor and retired broker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) for assistance in buying into this “insane” gamble. The film ping-pongs back and forth amongst these four storylines (only Vennett and Baum directly deal with each other) and through this scattershot approach McKay paints an incredibly infuriating picture.
Early on, McKay (with co-writer Charles Randolph) does a good job establishing the backgrounds of the protagonists (except Vennett) and setting the stage for their parallel perspectives on their industry. Baum is traumatized by the suicide of his brother, Burry is socially awkward and isolated in part due to his glass eye, Racket is convinced the whole world is headed for Armageddon and Shipley & Geller are newbies who just want a place at the table. A lot of this backstory is established through disjointed, suggestive montage-y moments, that at times almost seem nonsensical until the right piece of information is conveyed to the audience. These sequences can be odd and off-putting at times, and are largely helped by the great performances of the cast, who are all almost playing characters you would expect them to play without ever feeling archetypal.
But the key to McKay’s approach (and the biggest factor in defining this film as a docudrama) is that this is not a character study. This isn’t a film like fellow Michael Lewis adaptation Moneyball where a dry statistical subject is used as a backdrop for human catharsis. Rather, the primary goals of The Big Short are education and criticism. McKay wants to illuminate the systemic failure that caused this crisis and contextual use it in a way that helps regular people understand the problem and (hopefully) get mad about it. This is where McKay’s background as an audacious comedic filmmaker becomes a great asset: his ability to couch seemingly-complex economic policies into funny and entertaining asides is a huge part of what makes The Big Short so successful and what distinguishes it from other docudramas. And yet McKay also shows a deft dramatic hand here as well. For every example of using humor to convey economic theory there is a moment of blunt and impactful tragedy that underscores the human cost of these massive gambles.
In painting this very damning picture of the financial market, McKay makes sure no target is spared. Over the course of the story, our various protagonists cross paths with people from the Wall Street Journal, Standard & Poor’s and federal regulatory agencies, all of whom are revealed to be far too cozy with the financial world that they are supposed to be holding accountable. By the second half of the film, incredulity becomes the dominant attitude of all our major characters, as they continue to be stunned by the extreme gymnastics the industry goes through to try and keep the bubble from popping… and in the process only ensuring that the eventual meltdown will be all the more destructive and painful. McKay repeatedly drives home the fact that everyone not just played a game rigged to fail but actively participated in rigging the game in the first place.
This uncompromising judgment on the crisis and those that caused it even extends as far as the protagonists. As likable and relatable as they are, the supposed “heroes” of the film are just as culpable as anyone else in the financial crisis. While McKay does establish them as individuals, as a whole the group is defined by their relationship to the industry, even though many of them hate it. They are so closed off from other people that they don’t even consider the real-world implications of the bust they see coming. Instead, they only see an opportunity to make a ton of money at the expense of the industry they hate. Personally I spent a lot of the movie being frustrated by our protagonists and how for all their intelligence and frustration they didn’t consider the damage such a crash might do to average people, making it all the more tragic when they finally realize too late just how bad things will get. This makes their eventual “victory” feel hollow and pointless, as it should. McKay is sure to highlight just how awful the fallout is for everyone but our “heroes” and how unsatisfying their ultimate gains turn out to be.
The Big Short is a film that is highly informative and depressing as hell, while also being incredibly entertaining and propulsive. It combines a ‘70s-style “fuck the system, we’re all doomed” attitude with a modern anarchic style and pace to tremendous and unique effect. This is ballsy, immediate, visceral filmmaking that drives home just how fucked-up our economy is, and hopefully enough people see this film to avoid the same mistakes being made all over again… but probably not