Saturday, January 02, 2016
The Big Short
The Big Short is a terrifically angry film, and it is also a necessary one. Adam McKay’s adaptation of Michael Lewis’s book about the roots of the 2008 financial crisis and the men who saw it coming bubbles with fury and populism all the more moving for being so unfamiliar in recent American cinema. The screenplay, written by McKay and Charles Randolph, is an argument: The collapse of the housing market was inevitable, but greed and shortsightedness rigged the game and the American people paid the price. There has never been a harder time in our history to put a securities trader at the center of a major motion picture: who wants to watch the rich get richer, right? McKay wisely doesn’t spend too much time trying to make the men at the center of this story likeable. We learn just enough about Mark Baum (Steve Carell in a perfectly judged performance) and Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale) to know that their backgrounds put them on the fringes of Wall Street, and that Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) is a player smart enough to see the disaster around the corner. The decision that connects these three, along with two younger investors (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock) working independently, is the choice to believe there is a housing bubble. Or, as a retired trader (Brad Pitt) helping the young ones puts it, to “bet against the American economy.”
McKay is working in dense territory here, so to keep The Big Short from becoming either preachy or too confusing he invents a style that might best be described as High Didacticism. Characters, especially Gosling’s Vennet, acknowledge the camera to explain their behavior or clarify whether or not a moment is real or invented. We’re never supposed to get too caught up in the drama here without forgetting that this story really happened and that it affected people’s lives. When the thicket of financial jargon threatens to become overwhelming, McKay cuts to a famous person (Selena Gomez, Anthony Bourdain, Margot Robbie) explaining terms like “credit default swap” or “collateralized debt obligation” in direct address to the camera. This spoonful of sugar has a sting: McKay isn’t indulging famous friends with cameos, rather he has understood that having a good-looking celebrity explain something important to us may be the only way to keep our attention. As The Big Short reaches and then passes the spring of 2007 - the point when Michael Burry believed the number of mortgage defaults would trigger a crisis - the film becomes a horror show in which it’s revealed just how deeply Wall Street was looking after its own interests. A Standard & Poor’s officer (Melissa Leo) can’t defend the company’s triple-A ratings of junk securities after acknowledging that S&P gets paid by the banks to do its job. The young traders who have just made the deal of their lives can’t get a Wall Street Journal reporter interested as the crisis begins to blossom in 2008. McKay Has made a message film and the message becomes clear in these late scenes: Wall Street’s desire for self-preservation overcame any need to correct its own misbehavior.
The Big Short wouldn’t work if the film weren’t so solidly constructed. The directorial flourishes undergird good storytelling; they aren’t a substitute for it. The film doesn’t forget that the characters and the investors they represent are making a choice to profit off of something that will ruin lives, and the character who interrogates his own actions the most is Mark Baum. Steve Carell plays Baum (based on a fund manager named Steve Eisman) as a man whose shell is crumbling due to a combination of scruples and personal tragedy. Carell takes everything endearing about his usual persona and shoves it aside, and the result is both moving and surprising. The rest of the ensemble is equally up to the task, with Bale finding great notes of vulnerability and Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater, and Jeremy Strong making a very entertaining chorus of disbelieving traders. Adam McKay is known for making broad comedies like Anchorman, but with The Big Short he proves himself a director of both confidence and social conscience. What a pleasant surprise to find, at the end of a year when American politics reached new heights of dark silliness, a film that genuinely rakes the muck. We need so many more just like it.