Published on January 15th, 2016 | by Nathan Raine0
The Big Short
The Big Short is getting big praise. But is it a hackneyed film that tries too hard to riff on The Wolf of Wall Street?
“Okay, Chris. Pretty sure this guy has Asperger’s or something. So, I need you to let the audience know within the first three seconds just how very, very autistic he is. Okay? And, action…cut cut cut. I can’t believe I’m saying this to you of all people, but is it possible that you can go bigger? How about we get you a glass eye?”
What I assume was director Adam McKay’s direction to Christian Bale while shooting the obnoxious opening scene of The Big Short. The scene aims to earn a cheap laugh at the expense of Michael Burry’s [Christian Bale] lack of social deft. There’s no context for the character’s strange behaviour, and laughing at a character simply because of a perceived mental disorder feels about as appropriate as laughing at someone walking by with a limp. It’s the first of many tacky, poorly calibrated, and terribly unfunny scenes that ultimately pollute any of the film’s awkward stabs at dourness when recounting a financial disaster.
Adapted from Michael Lewis’ 2010 nonfiction book of the same title, The Big Short tells the story of a bunch of morally compromised individuals who made a killing by shorting stock on collateralized debt obligations [CDOs] – the home loan mortgage crisis that led to the financial collapse in 2008. It’s blatantly obvious that McKay wants to mimic the energy and style of The Wolf of Wall Street, so much so that he plunks Wolf star Margot Robbie in a bathtub to have her demystify some Wall Street jargon [more on this later]. But none of Wolf‘s energy, rich characters, or pathos McKay tries to desperately to emulate is found in The Big Short. It’s only true likeness, really, is subject matter.
The movie has a star cast, each turning in some of the most irritating performances of their respective careers. Steve Carell plays Mark Baum, an arrogant hedge-fund manager, whose full gambit of emotions seems to only include bewilderment, anger, and mild shame. Ryan Gosling plays the wildly unlikable and hammy Jared Vennett, also giving the movie a handful of cringey narration. The aforementioned Bale fuels autism into Michael Burry, a Northern California-based MD turned stock swap savant. Least inflated of all is Brad Pitt’s Ben Rickert – the only actor among among the four not thoroughly overplaying his role, and the sole character providing more than a crumb of human or moral decency.
The narrative arc of the film consists of each character figuring out that the demise of the American economy is a pretty great opportunity to cash-in. Naturally, it necessitates a great quantity of financial jargon, and McKay assumes he’s playing to an audience of dunces. As such, he employs a profusion of gimmicks to enliven a story that feels like it deserves a more considered approach. Clunky interludes for financial lessons taught by super-star celebrities [Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain, Selena Gomez] are intended to be a stylized and amusing one-off way to impart a bit of financial wisdom, but the scenes are invariably awkward, and come off as condescending. It’s undeniably lazy filmmaking; McKay’s hoping we’ll overlook the shameless exposition because we’re busy penguin-clapping for a beloved star cameo.
But the gimmicks don’t end there. Gosling is constantly breaking the fourth wall and explaining some facet of Wall Street goonery in a way that’s devoid of any charm or interest. It completely takes the audience out of the film, and, after this kind of narrative cheapness, makes it not so enticing to dive back in. McKay also regularly scraps together cultural markers; collages of pixelated YouTube clips, stock images, and other questionably relevant content [Basquiat is certainly one of the more important American artists in the last half-century, but does flashing one of his works capture a certain undeniable flavour of American culture at the time, creating a tangible sense of what life was like during a particular era? Absolutely not. But I digress…]. It’s a tired method we’ve seen a hundred times, but McKay’s sloppy use of it makes it even more stale.
After bumbling its way for an hour through these awkward gimmicks and strained jabs at comedy, McKay, thankfully, drops the schtick altogether and decides to dawn his serious hat. The shift in tone in drastic – so much so that it feels like each act of the film was directed by an entirely different director. Mark Baum and his team take a research trip to Florida, in which they meet a few bone-headed frat-bro/mortgage dealers, a stripper using her one-dollar bills to obtain multiple mortgages, and an assortment of other idiots. They learn that most of these mortgage-backed securities are utter garbage, and these nitwits are creating a housing bubble. So, they short them. But subtly isn’t McKay’s strong suit. The audience is now supposed to be privy to the epiphany that only a handful of Wall Street pigs had made. But predicting an economic collapse after meeting these kinds of bozos isn’t exactly a convincing stroke of genius – McKay paints it as a completely obvious consequence.
And yet [in possibly McKay’s most baffling decision], when the inevitable collapse happens, he decides to venerate his key characters, depicting them on the verge of guilt-induced tears as they’re posed to rake in millions. We spend huge chunks of time watch Baum rub his forehead in bewilderment as he discovers the corruption and greed of the banks. Yet, he only uses this information to exploit the looming catastrophe. There’s no ethics here, and making heroes out of the guys who profited from millions of destroyed lives feels just a bit nauseating.
For all of its defects in form and execution, I can’t deny that The Big Short has a pretty intriguing story. And it does, if only momentarily, consider the ethics and implications of exploiting the financial collapse. In the film’s most impactful scene, Brad Pitt chastises his two young associates for celebrating as the economy begins to crumble – McKay thankfully reveling in a moment of thoughtfulness. A few other scenes near the end breezes through families devastated while the big banks get bailouts from the taxpayers’ money. It’s sort of too-little-too-late to start framing the event through an ethical prism, but gives you just enough to question who the bad guys are in all of this, and wish, for the movie’s sake, there had been more scenes with this kind of considered approach.