As I begin writing this review for The Big Short, I am somehow reminded of the brilliant and darkly comedic satire American Psycho (2000). The two films share very little in common except Christian Bale is in both and both have to do with Wall Street. The Big Short is based on a true story whereas American Psycho is pure imagination and strictly speaking a more direct satire. The reason I am comparing these two films is because I think they can be considered sister films (or at least first cousins). Without spoiling ‘Psycho for you, I will say that film uses fantasy and violence to display the effect greed and one’s concern with placement on the snobbery hierarchy (in the United States) can have on the psyche; The Big Short is what actually happens to the USA if American Psycho‘s fantasies take on a real life form.
But let’s talk about The Big Short…..
Adam McKay’s The Big Short is the true story of the housing market bubble bursting in 2008 and how a handful of Wall Street outsiders predicted it and were able to make a LOT of money because of it. The way McKay handles this material is risky and bold, but the result is very entertaining and one of the best films of 2015!
I will not explain the finer details of the plot; part of the many joys of this film is the way McKay has his characters explain it to the audience. Not only is he treating the subject matter as satire, but McKay is also having a little fun with the based on a true story theme, and dare I say satirizing the genre as well.
McKay understands that this material is difficult to understand by the average film going American, so he uses brilliant meta moments to (not) dumb-it-down, but make it easier for the viewer to understand. Here’s an example:
McKay implies that the country uses pop culture and celebrity to distract the public from the actual evil that goes on from time to time. He employs the same tactic, but instead utilizes it to help explain the difficult financial terms and investment strategies. In one example he has Ryan Gosling’s character breaking the fourth wall** telling the audience, “Now to help you understand, here is Margot Robbie drinking Champagne in a bubble bath explaining it to you…” And then, yes, the gorgeous Margot Robbie also breaks the fourth wall from a bubble bath and directly explains to us viewers whatever the film’s plot is dealing with at that moment! This method is used a few other times in the film with popular celebrities spanning many disciplines.
In addition to not delving too far in to the plot, I will also not use character’s names in this review, there are too many to count. I will say that the cast is remarkable and none of them miss a beat. Steve Carell’s character is my favorite of the film. He moves through the film so smoothly with a steadfast ambition to get things done the way he wants to do them. Just when you think he is getting in his own way with his manic tics, you realize this behavior is what will also get him out of his own way. More than that, though, his character is (I believe) supposed to be an agent of the layperson – the viewer – us…. The events depicted in this film and some of the people portrayed who are partly responsible for this colossal financial collapse are reprehensible greedy A-HOLES! Easy for me to say, but Carell’s character is a person with a strong and thoughtful understanding of this financial crisis, so when we the viewer see his character showing disgust for these bad people, we feel it’s okay for us to feel that way too.
In addition to Carell we get an almost unrecognizable Brad Pitt who in a moment at a casino interrupts his two partners’ celebration to remind them of what their financial gain is built upon: Other American’s misfortune. As I mentioned, Ryan Gosling plays a cocky investor who with great command breaks the fourth wall from time to time to explain to the viewer how exactly this is all working. Marissa Tomei shows up briefly as Carell’s wife. Although it’s a small role, I believe McKay employed her celebrity and competence to let the viewers understand she is an important support to Carell’s character. Christian Bale plays an M.D. turned financial adviser who is the first to recognize the downward trend of the housing market. I have come to expect nothing short of greatness from Bale and he does not disappoint here. Great minor supporting performances by all help to make this a very enjoyable film
I mentioned earlier how I feel McKay is not only treating this material as satire, but also satirizing the true story genre. There are a couple of moments where I feel this is clearly indicated, but I will share with you the biggest example:
A lot has been made in recent years about the liberties films take with subject matter that is based on a true story. People are complaining that the events as they are laid out in these films are not exactly how they went down in real life. I say to those people that you need to watch this medium called film a little more closely to find the finer details that imply liberties are being taken, but I digress….
McKay does something really fun and funny in The Big Short to hopefully satisfy these people who want true stories to be truer.
I don’t want to spoil the fun, so I’ll explain just enough for you to recognize when it happens:
Two of his characters are trying to move up the financial totem pole and try to get a meeting with a big bank. The meeting takes place in the lobby of a large office building in New York (as their current status did not warrant an invitation past the lobby). After being rejected, there is some very deliberate dialogue explaining how often they get rejected and by how many firms. Then they find something that just happens to be on the table in the lobby that turns them on to a new project. That’s when one of the guys breaks the fourth wall to explain how it really happened in real life! It plays as a funny moment, but mainly calls attention to how boring this passage of the film would’ve been had they shown the real way it occurred. It’s not cutting corners, it’s efficiency….!
I mention a lot of the different techniques McKay uses in this film to move the material along. Most of them employ humor, which makes a lot of sense given McKay’s filmography (Anchorman, Step Brothers http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0570912/?ref_=ttfc_fc_wr2#director). Some may argue that McKay was the wrong choice for The Big Short. These people may think he copped out and resorted to humor because that’s all he can do. Firstly I’d respond to those people by saying, SO WHAT? But secondly I’d politely tell those people they are wrong. The humor serves as a buffer to this material. We are watching a film that has to do with millions of people losing their jobs and retirement money and their homes because of the greed of other Americans. The humor makes this subject matter a little more sugary and thus easier to swallow. Not all of the scenes are funny; some are downright sad, but given the balance the humorous and satirical parts provide, this a film that is not only enjoyable, but also informative.
I think I have made it clear to you that I am no financial guru by any stretch of the imagination. I like films like this that are informatively artful. I mentioned American Psycho; I wonder if director Mary Harron knew what was on the horizon at Wall Street when she made it. I wonder if Adam McKay revisited American Psycho before he made The Big Short. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is we are living in a country that stands on the credo of hard work and turns right around and devalues it. It does so with the motivation of greed and the idea that if I have more than you, I am simply better than you. Patrick Bateman in American Psycho knew this, but hated himself for it. The real life people portrayed in The Big Short who are responsible for the financial mess knew it too, but they only hated poor people and immigrants. Lofty accusations by me, maybe, but it’s not a new story. The almighty dollar is a big motivation for Americans and gets incorrectly equated to realizing dreams. If an underlying lesson can be taken from The Big Short, I think it is this: We mustn’t boil things down to buzzwords. We mustn’t bastardize our dreams to a dollar sign. Be earnest in your fight for survival and our country’s worth will rise….
This is one of the most important films of the decade….!!
** Breaking the fourth wall –
Speaking directly to, otherwise acknowledging or doing something to the audience through this imaginary wall – or, in film and television, through a camera – is known as “breaking the fourth wall“.