Movie Review: The Big Short (2015)

bigshottrailerIt’s quite unsurprising that culture satirist, jocular director, and blustery social media persona Adam McKay would force his career towards tackling more discerning political material. This is, after all, the director who thinks his comedies possess some insightfully biting partisan subtext, such as the supposedly astute critique of TV news culture in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004), the insulting simplification of the “bitter guns and religion clingers” of the flyover Midwest in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006), and the absurd ending to his white-collar crime comedy The Other Guys (2010) that dumps graphs, figures, and charts relating to the bank bailouts and CEO salaries. It’s that last film’s sense of irritable civics ranting and populist ire towards “too big to fail” Banks, white-collar crime, and systemic fraud in the financial world that has guided McKay to adapting Michael Lewis’s 2010 best-selling book, The Big Short. The film, just like the book, attempts to make a farce out of a tragedy, and seeks to build a comprehensive portrait of the 2008 financial collapse via insider gamesmanship, fraudulent ratings agencies, and faulty regulation. And just like the book, the film confuses symptoms of the crisis for the actual causes, simply highlighting one major piece of an incredibly complicated puzzle. There’s no mention of the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, the government’s threats of judicial oversight to promote home ownership at any cost, no analysis of Fannie Mae & Freddie Mac’s fueling of housing prices, and certainly no assessment of the implicit “too big to fail” safety net that misaligned incentives. The Big Short is a classic example of being angry at the players who took advantage of a government-manipulated market that was above the failure of risk and backed by favored subsidies for housing investment. However, those looking for an energized, madcap, and selectively dense introduction to how a market bubble generates and then pops, this might be a solid fictional entertainment account to begin beyond the generally fact-based Charles Ferguson documentary Inside Job (2010).

But getting on board with The Big Short requires an uphill battle in narrative sympathy, mainly to follow the heroic investment practices of hedge-fund outsiders who predicted and sought to profit on the impending implosion of the housing market. This was an equally difficult task sought out in J.C. Chandor’s superior Wall Street drama Margin Call (2011), but Chandor’s reverence for the system and disappointment in its failings came off as fatherly, mournfully respectfully, and completely genuine. With The Big Short, McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph (Love & Other Drugs, The Life of David Gale) clearly have no respectful consideration towards the system as an ideal or its benefits, so their entire premise comes off as sagging indignation. That doesn’t stop them from injecting their prominent sense of self-satisfied smugness into the kinetic proceedings of investment dealings and opaque financial terms. If you don’t understand certain phrases—whether they be “credit-default swaps,” “collateralized debt obligations,” or even “mortgage-backed securities”—don’t worry, the film utilizes breaking-the-fourth-wall gimmickry and celebrity driven PSAs to explain them to those unfamiliar. And though these moments provide some mildly humorous spectacles reminiscent of the director’s more goofball sensibilities, it does showcase a problem with source material adaptation. Lewis’s book had ample time to flesh out characters, weave in narrative vignettes, and explore the financial world in stupefying depth, but a film has one commodity that goes against it: limited time. The result is a film that mildly entertains through sheer force of energetic will, but is weighed down by constant expository clarifications; clarifications that unfortunately show only a limited understanding of the system the writers are criticizing. While the film does a fine job in replicating the book’s ability to demystify the glorified world of finance, it never reaches the level of scathing polemic that it so desperately wants to be. Luckily for the viewer this is a problem with thematic fullness and not in the moment to moment entertainment the film can provide.

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Guiding us through McKay’s slightly dramatized adaptation—a mixture of business world thriller, goofball heist movie, and a pretentious invention of financial didacticism—are a group of four antisocial outcasts who eventually come to see the writing on the wall: non-conformist money manager Michael Burry, M.D. (Christian Bale), incensed hedge-fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell, based on Steve Eisman), slick Deutsche Bank profiteer and narrator Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling, originally Greg Lippmann in the book), and a duo of fledgling Colorado investors, Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro). Having a generally good eye for character archetypes, McKay fashions these colorful iconoclasts with his developed comedic skill into the sympathetic mavericks we inevitably are charmed into liking (most likely aided by all around good performances). And one of the film’s devious strengths is generating a sympathetic investment towards Burry’s confident projections, Baum’s moral righteousness, Vennett’s smug exploitation, and the duo’s underdog finance strategy, which of course inevitably means we’re cheering on their success along with the ruin of the American economy. Because of its kinetic presentation that inevitable realization creeps slowly on the viewer, mostly when veteran finance mentor Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) scolds his protégés and the audience that homes will be lost, jobs will vanish, and the loss of life that correlates with those impending disasters will also increase. It’s one of the only instances of human consequence that The Big Short ventures, though not in the devastating way that Ramin Bahrani’s excellent 99 Homes (2015) did with such empathetic appeal. Because there’s no happy ending to this financial and human tragedy of miscalculation and a manipulated system, there’s an odd contrast between the film’s core playful dynamism ingrained in Barry Ackroyd’s camera and Hank Corwin’s editing and the film’s solemn ending heightened by Nicholas Britell’s somber score. This unfortunately results in a film that’s uneven, but also wastes its most glorious opportunity: to serve as a warning for future impending bubbles (a reemerging house bubble, education, etc.), but the film feels distracted in its misaligned rage and vehement disgust pointed only towards the past.

McKay’s politicized wrath often drags The Big Short into jagged pontificating over the lack of legal consequences brought upon the fraudsters at the heart of the financial collapse. Certainly there’s room for some mild righteousness—especially towards the bailout with taxpayer monies—but this overarching moral superiority gets lost in the frantic, almost erratic creative execution. It wouldn’t be such an issue if this fast-paced technicality—ignited by a mixture of what appears to be adrenaline and speed—didn’t also lose track of the human consequence of the system’s failures. Near the end there are some minor manipulative imagery additions of families losing their homes that seeks to give the film its desired heart, but the moments of loss come too late. There’s also a upending irony at play within the film’s assumptions towards the intelligence of its audience being able to understand the complicated system of trading, investing, and buying, yet the kinetic style also assumes modern audiences lack focus (they might, but there’s still a contradiction in the film’s appeal). It’s unfortunate because the characters are so vibrant, so complex in their goals and emerging understanding of what’s really at stake that the film didn’t necessarily need its stylistic distractions. A wonderful Steve Carell finding his best dramatic footing to date as the irascible Mark Baum, and along with his team of financial cohorts (including the great acting talents of Rafe Spall, Jamish Linklater, and Jeremy Strong) they showcase a divided moral compass between fiduciary responsibility to the clientele and a knowing mistrust in the broken system. They’re players in the game that, despite their cynicism, still have what Gosling’s Vennett states—with melancholic derision—as faith in the system. And what’s truly unfortunate about McKay’s analytical conclusion is that faith in financial institutions shouldn’t exist. The Big Short might be the director’s therapeutic release towards “hyper-capitalism” (accurately known as government coerced corporatism), but it’s fueled by a mistrust of the financial markets benefits, a misdiagnosis of its causes, and a complete misunderstanding of how it actually operates.

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For those who were erroneously critical of Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) in its supposed glorification of Wall Street’s avarice, McKay’s The Big Short might serve as the cinematic remedy in its indignation towards the operation of financial markets. Because of the prominence of the financial market, the film does make it clear that there’s always a risk in its failing to impact people where it hurts most: their wallets, their homes, and especially their lives. With this in mind it’s exceptionally difficult to make an atmosphere of whimsy when the impending end is one of immense calamity, but somehow the film’s process keeps a recurring sense of levity towards its outrageous outcomes. It’s well cast, and exceptionally acted by an ensemble that understands comedic boisterousness and an equal measure of dramatic impact. Unfortunately, these are merely occasional positive attributes that carry the viewer through its constant frantic exposition and minimal unraveling of the 2008 financial collapse’s causes. Certainly banks acted immorally, but they were making decisions within a playing field that was removed from risk, that had eliminated original aligned incentives with free-market principles, and misused highly complex financial products. Items such as collateralized debt obligations can serve positive purposes of spreading risk and creating investment opportunities. But the filmmakers see an abuse of something as a rebuke of the entire system, and that’s an oversimplification that doesn’t do any progress to mending the institution that was already “too big to fail,” and now teeters on even more expansion due to a lack of change in the regulatory relationship between government and business. The Big Short mildly entertains, and stokes a fire of rage with its Occupy Wall Street platitudes, but ultimately serves as a forgettable diagnosis of a continuing flawed system.

Grade: C+

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