The Oscars Countdown: The Big Short

Wall Street, Patrick Cardinal,

Anthony Parker takes a look at Adam McKay’s biographical film on the events on Wall Street in the lead up to the housing bubble collapse in the mid-2000s.

Watching The Big Short is very different to what I expected in the trailer. This is not a comedy. Not the highwire romp spinning around the plughole of the ’07 crash. It’s not glorying in its astute quirky genius, while we watch the inveterate renegade brokers bare their teeth to short their nest egg down to their last dime on a stacked bet against the fraudulent housing market of America.

It’s not just all those things. It’s also sober, loaded and gripping. And as a description of the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression (caused, as it demonstrates, by SEC connivance with criminal negligence and conspiracy on the part of the banking industry) the awful truth is this blockbuster happens to be journalistic, informative and very watchable. If Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street lent its audience the eye sockets of snow-nosed, octane guzzling CEOs with a frat boy’s excess, then the characters of The Big Short stand firmly divorced from the debauchery. The plot follows three groups of “outsiders and weirdos” all of whom have realised that the housing market will fail, since it rests on bad loans, and all decide to bet big against the received wisdom of the Big Banks and the seemingly inexorable market trend.
Every detail of the film heightens sense of the heroes’ alienation and sets them apart as pariahs, contra mundum, excluded from herd. The individual pallets surrounding the protagonists are grey, blue and dark brown. Milk tea cardboard and grey suits standing next to teal shirts. The scenes depicting the banking industry on the other hand make the Medicis seem modest: backdrops of Florence, Manhattan clubs and Sushi restaurants that make your mouth water. Plush reds, mahoganies, rich claret, sequins, mirrored walls – and, because its a film about Wall Street, compulsory strippers.

If Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street lent its audience the eye sockets of snow-nosed, octane guzzling CEOs with a frat boy’s excess, then the characters of The Big Short stand firmly divorced from the debauchery.

It ain’t Shakespeare, some of it jars a bit. The film relies heavily on overlapping history and artistic licence and the structure has the same stop-start, traffic-jam, jerry-built, tessellated feel. Sometimes it works. Margot Robbie from a bubblebath, Selena Gomez at the blackjack table and Anthony Bourdain slicing fish over a red hot stove interrupt the film’s plot to explain the nuances of the deliberately abstruse Financial lingo. Rapid fire screenshots: The Blues Brothers, Apple’s ’84 Mackintosh, the Empire State Building, Presidents Clinton I and Bush II rattle over the screen to show the age passing under the anchors’ and the pundits’ original broadcasts, before Ryan Gosling’s opinionated narration, forming the treble, takes you by the hand. This practice of rough cut from narrative to side track is repeated in various different ways. Music starts and stops suddenly, a character will turn to the camera to explain that the way this happened is not exactly true – it happens like that actually, or once – that actually did happen! Its idiosyncrasy is often not to the film’s disservice. One time the music, ratcheting up as a metaphor for the rising euphoria and incredulity of Goldman managers, assuming Michael Burry is burning his investment betting against a dead cert, stops dead when awkward Burry turns: ‘I like these cups can I take one for my son’. Some of it works less well. The dialogue is primarily functional. It has the combative canine macho banter you associate with greed, grit…Wall Street. It’s witty and its funny, but when it tries to show curiosity in its characters it feels like water painting with a dry brush.

In the end, Pitt’s, Carell’s, Bale’s, and even Gosling’s protagonists come across as loveable each in their individual way.

The angriest, whitest knight of the oddballs, Mark Baum, played by Steve Carell, is introduced denouncing a colleague who makes a living profiting off the misunderstanding of laymen who are tripped up by Financial regulations and minutia: “This creep is making billions off screwing over people this way”. By the end its crystal clear that Baum himself (if not actively malicious) has made billions profiting of working people being screwed. The introspective elements of the plot seem a little crudely anti-materialistic but the acting saves it from this slight barrenness. In the end, Pitt’s, Carell’s, Bale’s and even Gosling’s protagonists come across as loveable each in their individual way.

The Big Short is something of a buddy movie, something of underdog-wins-the-derby myth, something of an epic vanquishing odds, and more than a little of a Greek Tragedy where pride and ignorance and unbelievable self delusion precipitate the fall. It’s leitmotif of man’s unsustainable and contorted greed struggling against nature – such as Ben Rickert’s (Pitt) devotion to watering his vegetables with wood ash and urine to cleanse the chemicals, and the presence of an alligator who’s taken up residence in a house the bank built that no-one can afford – sustain the point that this is more than a film about a distant profession the rich play at in tall buildings, but a social requisite and (as its practiced) a social scourge. Lastly, it is fierce sharp-toothed journalism, from the last place you’d expect it in, a tone that’s hums and scorns and jibes and laughs for two hours. The end reveals the film to be a Jeremiad. It laments the past, lambastes our present inertia and warns about the future, both financial and, as the prophetic Michael Burry is now concerned, ecological. It would be a lie to say I didn’t enjoy every minute of this film. From start to finish. Twice.


Director: Adam McKay
Cast: Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Marisa Tomei
Nominations: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Christian Bale), Best Director, Best Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay
Why You Should Watch It:
Do you care about money, the world, our history or the future? Then watch this film.
What Its Missing:
Not noticeably anything. At the end of the film the lives of the heroes are described and not shown, but by doing this it merely impresses how recent history this history is: Their past fiction segues smoothy into our present state of things.
The Worldly Rating: ****


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