Skip to main content

Do you realise what you just did? You just bet against the American economy.

The Big Short
(2015)

(SPOILERS, if you've been seclusion for the past decade) Adam McKay’s adaptation of Michael Lewis’ 2010 book The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine is fuelled as much by admiration as indignation. Not for what this collection of speculators achieved (triggering the 2007 financial crisis, from whence nothing will e’er be the same again, no matter how hard we try to kid ourselves), but for their perceptiveness and acumen. The movie inhabits similar territory to the ruinous financial tomfoolery we saw in The Wolf of Wall Street – highlighting the absence of any semblance of a moral or ethical component within capitalism – albeit it is demonstrably more forward in leading its audience by the nose. But that’s okay, nay essential; it needs to be in order to explain itself. The Big Short takes an unashamedly accessible approach to exposing the seemingly impenetrable underpinnings of the sub-prime crisis and, through the closest thing a movie of if-not-villains-then-questionably-motivated-hucksters has to an arbiter of what went down (Steve Carrell’s incendiary hedge fund manager Mark Baum), expresses acute outrage amid the prevailing mirth of disbelief.


The Big Short fits into that cross-pollinated genre in latter years identified as dramedy, although simply labelling it a straight-up satire might be more helpful. McKay (Anchorman, The Other Guys, which also got stuck into the instigators of the financial crisis, specifically the looting of pension funds; in a sobering end credits animation, it explains Ponzi schemes and furnishes figures for the costs of the crisis on average Joes) is a natural for going broad, what with his “outrageous mind” and all, so this doesn’t have the same deftness and craftsmanship Scorsese brought to Wolf. But then, if a subject deserved a sledgehammer, it’s this one. Even given that supporting player Brad Pitt had taken another Lewis book that was on the face of it unlikely movie material, Moneyball, to significant success (Pitt co-produced both), McKay, adapting with Charles Randolph, only got the go-ahead from Paramount on condition he made Anchorman 2.


Average Joes are barely in evidence in The Big Short. Aside from quick-cut montages, their representative is a dutiful tenant (compounding the injustice of losing his home, his daughter has only just started school; those McKay broad strokes) whose landlord has been failing his repayments. Attempts to emphasise the other side amid the self-involved excitement of the main characters’ gold rush fever is also in evidence when Brad Pitt’s Ben Rickert cuts his young protégées off during their celebrations and chides them to ponder the ramifications of what they have just done. Mainly, though, McKay shrewdly avoids wallowing in the misery the rich getting richer has fostered, simply because he wants people to actually go see his movie. And Carrell’s blistering, apoplectically indignant Baum channels the main message without bringing everyone down, man. Better to reach an audience through anger and laughter than turn them off with despair.


As such, McKay surely looked to his predecessors when planning the picture; Arbitrage took the point of view of a hedge fund manager in dire straits, but limped too far of course into a (not especially involving) personal drama, while Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps was symptomatic of pensioner Oliver Stone’s more recent career; it lacked bite. Margin Call was highly accomplished, heroically making similar efforts to McKay in communicating just what went awry so as to bring down a namesake of Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns, but not very many people saw it. And it was also an interior piece, told from the point of view of those within the institution; McKay, with his band of nominal outsiders (through ethos, attitude or anti-social personality) takes on the entire financial apparatus. These guys aren’t the good guys (someone might argue the mere act of exposing the corrupt system is heroic, which rather avoids that they are still working within its environs, making – huge amounts of – money), but their eyes are sufficiently open to recognise the truth of the situation before it hits them and everyone else in the face.


Baum’s glum conclusion, following mystification over why no one wanted to do anything about the ticking time bomb, and speculation over whether the activities were knowingly fraudulent or the consequence of straight-up ineptitude, is that the institutions did nothing, when it came down to it, because they knew they’d be bailed out; they simply didn’t care. In an obvious, but no less acute for it, closing statement, Ryan Gosling’s narrator (unscrupulous trader Jared Vennett) informs us how, in the aftermath, hundreds of bankers were sent to prison and the big banks were broken up… 


Except they weren’t, only one fall guy went to prison, the poor and immigrants were blamed for all society’s woes (as they always are), and the salaries of those officiating over the mess continued to spiral upwards. Appointing itself harbinger of the inevitable in a system no one flushed out, the film warns that similarly tranched CDOs (collateralised debt obligations) were being sold once more by the summer of 2015. Flash forward to current warnings of a return plunge to the depths of the 2008 crisis are terrorising the headlines, while the future of Deutsche in particular (front and centre in the picture, where Vennett is an employee) is in doubt.


Some have asserted it’s unconscionable that the picture makes its protagonists out to be heroes, but one would have to be very literal minded to see them that way. The picture uses the “hero’s journey” as a tool to make the material relatable. Its cleverness is that these are guys doing “bad things” (to the economy, certainly) yet you’re put in the empathic position of wanting to see the underdogs succeed; it’s irresistible, and a very shrewd push-pull. It may be that The Big Short’s presentation of them as the lone voices is overstated, overemphasising the narrative that no one else could/did see it coming, and it’s certainly the case that stability of the mortgage market wasn’t merely assumed by those within it in the way it is painted here, but it’s an entirely understandable storytelling device.


The closest The Big Short gets to actual veneration is with Baum’s handwringing (and emotive, but rather facile and extraneous, backstory concerning his suicidal brother) over the crisis. But he’s the one who, on witnessing first hand the flagrant ambivalence towards what is occurring, demands “Short everything that man has touched”. He also ultimately gives the go ahead to proceed with the credit default swaps (in the name of fiduciary responsibility) on hearing a bailout is to be granted, so directly linking the shorts’ billions to tax payer money. One can’t really ascribe Baum (based on Steve Eisman) moral high ground, any more than Pitt’s disarmingly conspiratorial Rickert (based on Ben Hocket), a former JP Morgan trader with his eyes wide open about the system, who, when asked why he did this for his fledgling investors, replies “You wanted to be rich”.


Yves Smith in particular takes issue with Lewis’ portrayal of events, asserting that the action of the shorts drove demand to the very worst mortgages, thus making the sub-prime crisis ten times worse than it would have been otherwise (she also accuses Lewis, and by implication McKay, of paying insufficient attention to the other side of the CDO equation; who the buyers of the bonds were).


There may be something to this, and certainly the pace of developments at the backend of the picture isn’t as measured and easily digestible as the early stages. There, we have Margot Robbie in a bath explaining subprime loans. Some of these layman’s interludes are less helpful than others, however. I found Anthony Bourdain’s analogy of fish stew to CDOs rather obscured matters (essentially poor performing CDOs are repackaged, and repackaged again, and garlanded with AAA ratings), although Selena Gomez and Richard Thaler on synthetic CDOs were clear enough. McKay gets his ideas across through employing something of the pop sensibility Michael Moore has utilised to great effect in his documentaries. Sometimes the seams show (I was gratified to discover the “Truth is like poetry. And most people fucking hate poetry” line was made up by the director, as it reeked of an invented aphorism), but mostly McKay hits his target.


He’s strong both on the idiocy that was the foundation of the crisis (the jock-ish vacuity of mortgage brokers doing their very best to give loans to the most unsuitable property purchasers) and the collusion that allowed the deceit to sustain itself, be it Melissa Leo’s Standard & Poors rep (deciding ratings in order to maintain good relations with the banks), or massaged media (greenhorn investors Geller John Magaro and Shipley Finn Wittrock attempt to tell their story to a New York Times journalist, but he doesn’t want to make waves with his Wall Street contacts, and besides, he has a family to support).


McKay also wrings fine performances from his cast. Carrell in particular is a whirlwind of splenetic fury, and Bale is customarily transformative as the heavy-metal loving, aspergic, monocular Michael Burry, who saw the potential of it all and rung profits of 489% before closing his fund. Gosling brings obnoxious swagger, while Rafe Spall confoundingly essays a nice guy for a change. Lesser known actors Magaro, Wittrock, and Jeremy Strong (as one of the forthright analysts at Baum’s FrontPoint) flesh out the ensemble, while Byron Mann is magnificently vile, gleefully detailing his culpability to Baum before asking what he earns.


Geller pronounces, on the phone to his parents, “It’s the end of capitalism!” although his pronouncement may have come a little soon (but maybe only a little). Certainly, some of those involved don’t, in contrast to McKay’s foreboding closing summary, believe the same thing will happen again (Burry is not among them). Lewis is somewhere in between; while he doesn’t foresee an identical crisis in the near future, he believes the changes necessary to safeguard the system were not implemented (“I think they should have broken up the banks”). Why that didn’t happen is probably more about who really has the power, rather than the one Lewis suggests.


Even given McKay pulling out all the stops to make this populist fare, The Big Short’s success has been modest. It may get a modest boost if it wins Best Picture Oscar, but public interest in subject matter they’d rather not have to think about can only be so attractively packaged. Now, if the film had been able to serve scalps, rather than focus on a situation with no clear end in sight, it might have had had a chance to reach a viewership on All the President’s Men levels. Not that The Big Short comes close to that pinnacle of quality, but so few do.





Comments

Popular posts from this blog

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016)
(SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). Rather, it’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998)
An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar.

Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins, and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whether the audience was on …

Old Boggy walks on Lammas Eve.

Jeeves and Wooster 2.5: Kidnapped  (aka The Mysterious Stranger)
Kidnapped continues the saga of Chuffnell Hall. Having said of 2.4 that the best Wodehouse adaptations tend to stick closely to the text, this one is an exception that proves the rule, diverging significantly yet still scoring with its highly preposterous additions.

Jeeves: Tis old boggy. He be abroad tonight. He be heading for the railway station.
Gone are many of the imbroglios involving Stoker and Glossop (the estimable Roger Brierley), including the contesting of the former’s uncle’s will. Also gone, sadly, is the inebriated Brinkley throwing potatoes at Stoker, which surely would have been enormous fun. Instead, we concentrate on Bertie being locked aboard Stoker’s yacht in order to secure his marriage to Pauline (as per the novel), Chuffy tailing Pauline in disguise (so there’s a different/additional reason for Stoker to believe Bertie and she spent the night together, this time at a pub en route to Chufnell Hall) and …

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).