Review: The Big Short

Words by: Jack Dawson

There are times when I worry that my appreciation for a movie is rooted in my support for its implicit (or explicit) message. Maybe I dislike Clouds of Sils Maria because it takes what I consider to be undeserved potshots at genre films, or maybe I like Mad Max: Fury Road for its rather blunt attacks on toxic masculinity. And maybe I like The Big Short as much as I do because it spends its entire running time portraying Wall Street bankers and the system they helped to prop up as a criminally inept mess.

For one thing, such a perception allows the viewer (me) a sense of control, that the impossibly vast economic factors that rule my every move are the fault of a select group of self-absorbed idiots. And for another, it appeals to my own jaundiced view of bankers. Well if that is the case, at least it’s a slick piece of confirmation bias.

It’s 2005, and the American housing market is solid enough to bounce rocks off of (you and I and everyone else who got hit by the recession knows differently, but the film’s pacing requires this error to be stated with conviction). However, a handful of oddballs and unfashionably cynical bankers and financiers are beginning to get worried, particularly once they start looking at the house of cards that is the American economy and the bad foundation of dodgy mortgages that holds everything together. After spending most of their lives being screwed over by big banks in impossibly varied and vindictive ways, they decide that they can benefit from the stupidity and criminal incompetence of the banks, by betting against the housing market.

Greed, hypocrisy, and Margot Robbie spouting an exposition while naked in a bubble bath with a glass of champagne ensue.

If there was one single quality or attribute that defines The Big Short, it would be disgust. Disgust at the corrupt individuals who led the world into financial ruin, disgust at the complacency of broader popular culture which made things easier for said individuals, and disgust at the appalling ignorance practiced by so many arrogant Wall Street players. It’s hard not to be disgusted in turn, or angry for that matter, which speaks volumes about the film’s effectiveness in engaging with its audience.

Director Adam McKay is most famous for his comedy films (including the Anchorman films) and The Big Short is full of humorous asides and instances, but he also proves to have a deft hand for drama and cutting commentary. Several other critics have noted that assigning a comedy director the task of depicting Wall Street is oddly appropriate, it’s harder to think of a bigger joke than major banks.

However, while the commentary itself resonates with its audience, the method of conveying it can verge on the uncertain. McKay inserts brief clips and images that flesh out the time period or imply a perspective on the events depicted on screen. I’m inclined to brand the technique a success, although it’s a narrow one that verges on pretentious. In the hands of a lesser director with a worse sense of timing it would fail, but it serves the film well enough.

It’s the actors that really shine in this film however, with some great character actors filling out the main cast admirably. Christian Bale and Brad Pitt prove here that they’re both a lot more entertaining when employed as character actors than typical white male leads, Steve Carrel reaffirms his serious acting chops in a role that combines a larger-than-life personality with a sombre melancholy, and Ryan Gosling turns in an enjoyably scummy Wall Street shark who happens to be on the protagonists’ side. Having read the book, I also enjoyed the faithfulness to the real life people they’re based on, down to their appearances in some instances.

It was unfortunate that there weren’t many opportunities for actresses to shine in the film, the few female roles that are available don’t get a lot of screen time, and the ones who do tend to do little more than voice concern about what the male characters are doing.

In revieiwing this film, I’m getting flashbacks to Truth. I feel like I should know more about the film’s subject matter, and I presume that there a lot of very ticked off economists who are shouting ‘That’s not how CDO’s are structured at all’ at the screen, or something similar.

It’s going to be a long time before popular consensus can determine whether it was immigrants or bankers who caused the market to collapse, but I know which horse I’d bet on. And if I am going to be proven wrong and viewed as a hack critic who let his personal beliefs get in the way of objective analysis, I might as well be wrong about a pretty decent film.