As part of our Ultimate Playbill project, each week a faculty member will take the time to extol the virtues of one of the beloved films on this list. This week, I tackle holybeeofephesus’s #4 pick, The Big Short (2015).
Why would you watch a movie when you already know the ending? Could you get excited about the story when you actually don’t want the main characters to win? Can an educational film be transformed into entertainment? Do you mind if a movie calls you out on your ignorance?
I asked myself these questions after watching The Big Short. Even though it was one of the films nominated for Best Picture at the 2015 Oscars, I hadn’t gotten around to watching it until its release through Netflix. It’s one of the most interestingly crafted movies of the last few years; it’s built on exposition that pushes the conventions of dramatic narratives to the periphery. Where are all the characters that lose all their money and homes to the financial crisis? We see them, but barely. This movie doesn’t blatantly manipulate our heartstrings, it entertains us with a cast of fascinating characters while it educates the audience on the key details of how the housing market imploded in 2007, creating one of the biggest economic collapses in history. The movie navigates history through four sets of characters, but it’s never implicit that we should care about any of them. All of the characters are people that benefitted off the ignorance and suffering of fellow countrymen, and this story is more about seeing what lead these characters to be in the position to profit off the collapse. We’re allowed to understand these characters, we can sympathize with their actions, but we’re more invited to judge them than truly empathize with them.
So how exactly does this movie work? Because in spite of all the things I mentioned, I like this movie.
When I break it down into pieces, it’s amazing how well it functions. For a movie not to have heroic characters that you root for, or at least go on a emotional journey, sounds absolutely ridiculous. Not only does it have characters that are precariously likable, but because it’s recent history, there’s no suspense, we know what happens. It gets more unconventional in how it presents the facts of the story: it breaks the fourth wall on several occasions; sometimes with vignettes featuring celebrities who explain, somewhat patronizingly, key definitions in understanding housing market concepts.
These breaks in the narrative are a really fun part of The Big Short, and a feature that makes it stand out among recent satires. Margot Robbie appears in a bubble bath to explain what subprime mortgages are, Anthony Bourdain explains how bad CDO’s get rated well, and Selena Gomez explains what synthetic CDO’s are with the help of a certified genius, Dr. Richard Thayer. This information could be revealed with bland expository dialogue, or a simple montage and voiceover, but they pick these particular celebrities for their cultural cache. Honestly, who doesn’t want to see Margot Robbie in a bubble bath? She’s on this article’s banner for a reason, folks.
But what if instead of Margot Robbie in a bubble bath, The Big Short had Leonardo DiCaprio shucking corn? The non-sequitur comedy would still be there, but by having Robbie it points out our societal preferences, it exploits our shallowness, assuming we’ll listen more carefully to a beautiful woman than any of the other characters. And maybe that’s just cynicism, and maybe it’s true, but when this movie uses this device, it’s smug. Why have a intellectually appreciated chef like Bourdain over the more populist chef Rachael Ray? Because this movie thinks it’s cooler than you and it’s smug.
The pure absurdity of the events that we learn preceded the eventual downfall of the economy is enough to qualify this as a comedy, but the movie goes a step further. It takes the cultural figures we value, who are relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of world events, and reflects the absurdity back in our faces. Sometimes, it feels like a satire that’s making fun of us.
Which makes me ask myself: what is it about this movie that I fundamentally like?
My answer may not be the same as anyone else who finds the smugness of this film a turnoff, but there’s a simple genre subversion that makes this movie enjoyable. Though it plays like the most fun textbook chapter you’ve ever read, at it’s center, The Big Short is a heist movie. The joy comes from watching all these fascinating characters come together and pull off a phenomenal caper. We shouldn’t want this heist to succeed, but the outcome is inevitable, so we accept it and move on. The characterization in this movie is executed well from script to performance, and if it weren’t for how intriguing these profiteers are, the movie has no way to keep us in our seats for two hours while it gives a lecture.
The prophet who foresaw the downfall of everything, giving way to the opportunities that lead every other character in the movie to “the big short” is Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale). Burry has always been an outsider; he lost an eye to a childhood illness and this deformity has ostracized him from his peers. He’s admittedly awkward, and as much as he wants to be a part of society, he can’t help but resent it for making him feel out of place. So when he finds out the CDO’s are made up of subprime mortgages, he sees it as an opportunity to demonstrate the value of his intellect by shorting the market. His savvy investing yields high rewards from the collapse, but in the process he sacrifices every professional and personal relationship he has by pursuing the big short. He’s a tragic figure, someone who can read the writing on the walls, but can’t get people to believe him. It’s hinted that playing this game is also a way for him to get back at a world that uses his talents, but keeps him on the outside looking in. The epilogue of the movie explains that Burry wanted to share with the federal government how he predicted the housing market crash, only to be harassed by the FBI and IRS. Even in victory, Burry’s genius earns him more resentment than admiration.
Though Burry is the brains behind the big short, he doesn’t have the charisma to lead a team, which is where Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) comes in. Goose relishes playing the slick and savvy Vennett, and from the opening scene he is the most captivating player on the team. He’s the charming con man, though nothing he does is technically illegal, but he’s totally dedicated to making money off of the housing bubble. He’s shameless about his pursuit, which actually lends to his credibility. There are times when some characters go aside to speak directly to the audience, but that gag is Vennett’s entire business. He’s always speaking directly to us, and if his honesty doesn’t endear you to him, then Gosling going around whispering “I smell money…” and screaming “Tits!” absolutely makes him the most fun character in the story. Without Vennett, the remaining team members would never be able to pull off the score.
Part of the fun of heist movies is watching the team come together, seeing what each character brings to the table, and in Mark Baum’s (Steve Carell) case, he brings more characters to the table. Baum, who is based on hedgefund manager Stephen Eisman, is somewhat of a financial justice warrior, seeking to out and punish members of institutions that profit off the misfortune and stupidity of fellow Americans, which as a hedge fund manager, he’s not above doing himself. He chastises several characters for their blind greed, but is able to profit off their malice. His conflicted nature is manifested through the friends/associates he surrounds himself with: Danny (Rafe Spalls), Porter (Hamish Linklater), and Vinnie (Jeremy Strong). Danny is a people person who has a cute obsession with good restaurants, he’s Baum’s likeable side. Porter used to work with Mark on a previous job, and joined him because of how smart he believes Mark to be. He’s Baum’s reassurance. Finally there’s Vinnie, who like Mark, has experienced a tragedy that makes him self-righteous, and a little predatory. Vinnie is the one that eventually pushes Mark to profit off the crisis, and it’s no coincidence that he’s the character that most understands Baum’s ethos. under the influence of Vennett, this rag tag squad tour the decrepit Florida housing market, where we actually see meet people who will be destroyed when the housing bubble bursts. The visit Standards and Poor, where we learn the regulation agency willingly overvalue bad investments out of fear they’ll lose profit. Overall, what Baum and his squad bring to this heist is the voice of the curious and outraged. We spend the most time with these characters because out of everyone, they are the only one’s who somewhat struggle with the morality of betting against the market, yet still go through with it.
The crew is rounded out by Charlie Gellar (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), they “pretty boys” of the heist. Charlie and Jamie are young kids looking to make a fast buck. In the film they get wind of a report by Vennett left in the lobby of a big bank. However, in an aside, Jamie reveals the true circumstances of how they found out about the plan, which is boring and not convenient for the script. And that’s kind of how these characters are: boring, an excess, but a part of the history. They represent the young money crowd, kids that want to be rich but have no idea what to do with money. When they successfully bet against the housing market, they literally dance for joy, not realizing the consequences of the fall. The most interesting thing about them may be their relationship with Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), a former bank exec who consciously objects to the ruthless greed of big banking. Rickert’s mind is on becoming self-sufficient, stockpiling healthy seeds, growing his own food and living off the fat of the land. Richard’s motives for helping Charlie and Jamie short the market are speculative, but I think it had something to do with gardening.
Even though all the characters are extremely interesting, they’re not very likable, which is a departure for director Adam McKay. While he’s built a name for himself working with Will Ferrell on SNL and Anchorman and The Other Guys, two of the best ensemble comedies of the aughts, his approach to this ensemble film, which deals with his usual theme of adults stuck in arrested development, is admirably original. He tapped Barry Ackroyd, a cinematographer known for his work with dramatized historical movies, like Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips and Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, to lend the film a sense of realism that relies heavily on steadicam to immerse us behind the scenes of corporate offices and financial institutions. The camera doesn’t do many tricks, it tries to be a reliable storyteller, so a lot of the comedy comes from the amazing cast, and the editor, Hank Corwin. McKay has worked with some of the best comedic improvisers in show business, but for this more expository movie, Corwin’s quick editing actually feels improvised, cutting fast during the celebrity asides, and building interstitial montages which feature clips from commercials, episodes of Mad Money, and most memorably, a Ludacris video. These scenes are great visual sarcasm, and they underline the overall theme of the movie: that we were all too preoccupied by our consumerism to see the storm coming.
Our holybeeofephesus, uncle Isey, nominated this film, and though I could think of other satires to put on our playbill, I think I understand why he picked this one. Isey’s a history buff, and this movie is about as fun as learning about history can get (minus a time traveling magic school bus). Maybe deeper than that, I see a bit of some of the characters in Isey, and I think he kind of likes how this movie is bold enough to shake a finger in our faces, and have a laugh at the audience’s expense. In the end, none of these characters are somewhat immoral, but they’re not wrong. They saw the opportunity for a legal heist, and took the chance when no one was looking. We can say these people are morally compromised, but we can’t necessarily say we wouldn’t do the same thing if we were in their shoes. I shouldn’t speculate too much about Isey’s preferences (I figured he would nominate The Assassin of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford to the list but instead there’s…Star Wars: TFA), but I’m sure he’ll have some really interesting things to say when the ultimate playbill is published.
Until then, I think Scorsese’s Wolf of Wallstreet is the funniest satire of the financial world in recent memory, but The Big Short may be the one that we deserve.