Reviewing The Big Short is difficult.
The film depicts the lead-up to the 2008 global financial crisis, explaining what went wrong using clever, and crafty, comedy. Directed and co-written by Adam McKay, based on the non-fiction prize-winning book by Michael Lewis about the housing and credit bubble that triggered The Great Recession, it informs and entertains from the perspective of “financiers who grasped the implications of the toxic, parasitic waltz of Wall Street and real estate lenders before anyone else.”
McKay is best known for directing the enjoyable, but certainly not difficult to grasp, Anchorman films. This film on the other hand moves really fast, and while economics is not exactly rocket science, a basic understanding of financial chicanery is needed to follow the plot. This is where the humor is important, because aside from the cute inserts (Selena Gomez explaining Collateralized Debt Obligations, nuffsaid) it provokes and confounds and you are forced to pay attention to keep up with a plot that is both ethically and mathematically mangled… as comedies go, it’s downright sobering.
It is also brilliant. In sum, the comic premise is that finance only makes sense to weirdos – and not, as The Wolf of Wall Street has led us to believe, glamazons like Jordan Belfort. Traders as savants is cool, but even cooler is that the film generates visual interest in the spectacle of middle-aged guys sitting around in offices using a stellar cast starring Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt and more.
Aside from the eye candy, the main magic trick is how it alternates between an energetic documentary style and realistic reenactments of the book. This means that the tone careens all over the place and the style seems kind of nervous – rapid zooms, wobbly close-ups, incredibly incongruous soundtrack choices. Never in my life did I think I would see a Ludacris video superimposed over an investigation into mortgages.
It is also surprising to be captivated by hedge fund terminology and stock broker jargon, but I suppose this is the real value of the book-turned-movie: rather than a macro view of crash, it opens a small, personalized window by recounting stories of renegades who cashed in on their conviction that Wall Street was rotten. The author is a financial journalist, which reminded me of the Pulitzer-winning book by investigative journalist Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. That landmark work of narrative non-fiction carries the reader headlong into an invisible world of unforgettable real-life characters to illustrate how “as the tenderest individual hopes intersect with the greatest global truths, the true contours of a competitive age are revealed.” This film does same.
Of course, in film, time is the most precious commodity, and there isn’t enough to fully flesh out the characters so they end up being as “morally myopic and emotionally stunted” as I am inclined to believe finance bigshots must be, but it is a good indicator of visionary direction that I loved them all (real and invented) even while feeling physically ill at what they represent.
McKay’s method of taking the “choppy, skittish, and impatient mood of modern comedy and pasting it onto the story of a fiasco” saved my stomach, which I am grateful for. I also appreciated the demystification of how things really work on Wall Street, as do I the fact that a historical turn of events was dramatized for pop culture consumption – this is important because, to paraphrase philosopher George Santayana, those who cannot remember they were screwed by Wall Street are condemned to be screwed again.
The difficulty comes when engaging with what it means that a successful novel has been turned into a super successful, Oscar nominated. This story has been catapulted into the big leagues, and there are some capitalist complicities that I worry about. Like, how different are the idiocies and hypocrisies of the global financial system to that of the American film industry? This article about The Wolf of Wall Street interrogates whether American cinema has done enough since 2008 to make space for those devastated by the economic recession to feel some kind of political representation. The Big Short makes some headway on that front, but it gets a bit trickier when you “shift this conversation to how the film engages a specific mode of capitalist production that implies complicity with these very deranged people.” To simplify that, the creative industries in the United States (including screen media) are a major driver of economic growth, contributing $698 billion to the nation’s economy – about 4.32% of U.S. goods and services. To make a movie about financial instruments is no easy (or funny) feat and it is commendable that the film is as true to the book as possible. But.
Why was it made? Turns out, pop culture politricks.
If you want to learn about human power while laughing at its many follies, watch this film ASAP.