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Non-Review Review: The Big Short

The Big Short manages the deft task of being clever while being light, of being thorough without being slow, of being self-aware and ironic while still being earnest.

The Big Short is a very delicate cocktail, a precisely-calibrated high-wire act that threatens to collapse at any moment like the banking system it so scathingly indicts. If the financial markets that spurred the crisis were built upon the illusion of knowledge and projection of confidence, it seems reasonable to wonder the same thing of Adam McKay’s wry dramedy. There are several stretches of the movie that seem too ridiculous to be true, only for characters to break the fourth wall and assure the audience as to the veracity of what is portrayed on-screen.

At the margins...

At the margins…

The Big Short is pulled in multiple directions at the same moment, constantly wary of being pulled too far in one direction or the other. The film balances very carefully, trying to find the middle-ground between “too light” and “too heavy” as it offers an introduction to (and whistle-stop tour of) the financial crisis. There is a sense that The Big Short might go too far in any given moment; that its portrayal of the bubble as farce might shatter the verisimilitude, or that the anger simmering beneath the surface might explode and burn up the screen.

However, the most remarkable thing about The Big Short is not how skilfully it tells its story, but how easy it makes all this look.

Just the Pitts...

Just the Pitts…

The Big Short might easily have become a colourful power point presentation imparting a very important message. In some ways, The Big Short plays as a dramatised companion piece to Al Gore’s beautiful “power-point-cum-documentary” An Inconvenient Truth, a very sugary pill to help the viewer digest some frankly disturbing truths about current realities. Indeed, The Big Short even borrows a few stylistic cues from An Inconvenient Truth, occasionally pausing the action to expand upon technical language or indulge thematic tangents.

It is not too hard to imagine The Big Short appearing on a secondary school curriculum in the near future, particularly as Adam McKay takes such pains to explain the workings of the broken and disjointed system that pushed the United States (and global) economy to the brink of ruins. McKay does not relegate phrases like “mortgage-backed security” or “collateralised debt obligation” to simple maguffins designed to move the plot along. While The Big Short is rooted in its human characters, it devotes considerable time to explaining its financial jargon.

Dial it down...

Dial it down…

How it does this is remarkably clever. Occasionally, characters will pause the movie to explain what a particular phrase means; sometimes, text will appear at the bottom of the screen to define a piece of technical language; in some cases, McKay even indulges in a nice cut-away sequence to explain the roots of a particular practice through flashback or with a special guest using a more relatable metaphor. While there is only so much explaining a two-hour movie can do, The Big Short does strain to explain as much of the crisis as possible.

There are points at which the film does feel overly self-aware. There are moments when the script is a little too wry and a little too cute, with certain characters pausing the action to explain how the smaller details of the events have been altered or streamlined so as to help the flow of the story. It puts a distance between the audience and the characters, making The Big Short feel more like a footnoted text than a compelling movie in its own right. However, McKay never lets these nods and references overwhelm his story, grounding the film in its characters.

Jenga, baby!

Jenga, baby!

One of the shrewder storytelling decisions in The Big Short is the decision to ground its character arcs in familiar beats. The Big Short positions itself as the story of disparate outsiders and underdogs who attempt to game a corrupt system. It is a very familiar template, featuring a cast of familiar outsiders. Michael Burry is a misunderstood (and antisocial) genius; Charlie Geller and Jamie Shipley are the young upstarts gaming the system; Mark Baum is an embittered veteran; Jared Vennett is the cynic (and insider) who ties various threads together.

There is very little innovative in the basic framework of the story. Burry notices the inevitable collapse of the housing market, and sets out to make a profit. In doing so, he catches the attention of Jared Vennett. Through a wrong number and a discarded pitch, Vennett winds up cluing in the rest of the cast. The Big Short essentially follows three sets of protagonists who set out to game the system. Burry finds himself under pressure from his investors, Baum investigates on the ground, Geller and Shipley try to find a way in to make a profit while the going’s good.

Eating out on disaster...

Eating out on disaster…

The fairly straightforward plotting keeps The Big Short easy to follow, allowing the film more time and space to explain the particulars of what it happened and how it happens. At the same time, McKay is careful to ensure that the movie remains honest without getting too technical. While The Big Short explains many of the mechanisms that led to the financial crisis, the film is careful to root the disaster in very basic and very human decisions. Greed is one of the most universal of human motivations, even couched in catchy acronyms and technical jargon.

As Baum argues at the climax of the film, the financial crisis was predicated on mankind’s capacity to put short-term personal interest ahead of experience and logic and reason. It is the logical output of a system that reduces individuals to numbers, to statistics and bank balances. In fact, Burry only notices the looming mortgage crisis when he makes a point to look at the data beneath those statistics and balances; Baum is only convinced when he takes a trip to Florida to experience the situation first hand.

Margin call...

Margin call…

This is fairly straightforward, but that would seem to be the point. The Big Short takes something that seems complex and unwieldy and boils it down to its core essence. As the movie repeatedly points out, stripping away all of the business talk and obfuscation, many of the ideas underlying the American economy were just plain stupid. The Big Short presents the dark magic of the financial markets as nothing more than misdirection and self-delusion, a lie dressed up on hundred-page contracts and loan books that nobody reads.

Again, McKay’s sense of balance is impeccable. As much as The Big Short offers a macro examination of crisis, the movie never loses sight of the human cost of this recklessness. Part of the beauty of The Big Short is the way that it makes the audience complicit in all of this; it asks the audience to root for its outsiders and gamblers as they play the system. However, once the film has the audience convinced to back those quirky outsiders sticking it to big business, the film, it frequently makes a point to pull the rug out from under them. That big payday comes at a human cost.

Short fuse...

Short fuse…

(Of course, the market was always going to crash, regardless of whether our protagonists chose to profit from it. However, the clever twist in the film’s moral logic is that it is not about the act as much as the intention; even as the markets crash and lives are destroyed, that cynicism raises its ugly head. Trying to outline the severity of what is about to happen, one character advises his colleagues to contain their excitement. “Just don’t #$?!in’ sing.” The beauty of The Big Short is the way it lures the audience into singing along before they realise what they are doing.)

The Big Short is a smart and funny high-wire act, a rare movie that informs as it entertains – but without seeming to heavy-handed or too glib. The Big Short pitches itself at just the right level; not too much irony, but never overly earnest either.

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8 Responses

  1. It makes these dry subjects fun, exciting, and above all else, interesting. More so than they probably should be. Nice review Darren.

  2. Just a fabulous movie. I think it’s analogous to Goodfella — with its intercuts stories, it’s kicking soundtrack, the occasional breaking of the fourth wall, and in its tremendous ensemble cast (with Karen Gillan, just when you thought it couldn’t get any better!). Glad you liked it too.

    And, boy, Steve Carell was just tremendous. I don’t like his comedic persona, but in this movie he was a complete revelation.

    • As Jason points out, there is no small amount of Scorsese in there. If you like Carell here, have you seen Foxcatcher? He’s phenomenal in that.

  3. There are elements of Scorsese and David Russell in this film but interestingly The Big Short comes across as far more serious than Wolf of Wall Street or American Hustle. This is likely due to timeliness of the subject matter but still interesting given McKays filmography

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