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.





Popular posts from this blog

Ziggy smokes a lot of weed.

Moonfall (2022) (SPOILERS) For a while there, it looked as if Moonfall , the latest and least-welcomed – so it seems – piece of apocalyptic programming from Roland Emmerich, might be sending mixed messages. Fortunately, we need not have feared, as it turns out to be the same pedigree of disaster porn we’ve come to expect from the director, one of the Elite’s most dutiful mass-entertainment stooges, even if his lustre has rather dimmed since the glory days of 2012.

The Illumi-what-i?

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) (SPOILERS) In which Sam Raimi proves that he can stand proudly with the best – or worst – of them as a good little foot soldier of the woke apocalypse. You’d expect the wilfully anarchic – and Republican – Raimi to choke on the woke, but instead, he’s sucked it up, grinned and bore it. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so slavishly a production-line Marvel movie, both in plotting and character, and in nu-Feige progressive sensibilities, there was no chance of Sam staggering out from beneath its suffocating demands with anything more than a few scraps of stylistic flourish intact.

What’s so bad about being small? You’re not going to be small forever.

Innerspace (1987) There’s no doubt that Innerspace is a flawed movie. Joe Dante finds himself pulling in different directions, his instincts for comic subversion tempered by the need to play the romance plot straight. He tacitly acknowledges this on the DVD commentary for the film, where he notes Pauline Kael’s criticism that he was attempting to make a mainstream movie; and he was. But, as ever with Dante, it never quite turns out that way. Whereas his kids’ movies treat their protagonists earnestly, this doesn’t come so naturally with adults. I’m a bona fide devotee of Innerspace , but I can’t help but be conscious of its problems. For the most part Dante papers over the cracks; the movie hits certain keynotes of standard Hollywood prescription scripting. But his sensibility inevitably suffuses it. That, and human cartoon Martin Short (an ideal “leading man” for the director) ensure what is, at first glance just another “ Steven Spielberg Presents ” sci-fi/fantas

All I saw was an old man with a funky hand, that’s all I saw.

The Blob (1988) (SPOILERS) The 1980s effects-laden remake of a ’50s B-movie that couldn’t. That is, couldn’t persuade an audience to see it and couldn’t muster critical acclaim. The Fly was a hit. The Thing wasn’t, but its reputation has since soared. Like Invaders from Mars , no such fate awaited The Blob , despite effects that, in many respects, are comparable in quality to the John Carpenter classic – and are certainly indebted to Rob Bottin for bodily grue – and surehanded direction from Chuck Russell. I suspect the reason is simply this: it lacks that extra layer that would ensure longevity.

Are you telling me that I should take my daughter to a witch doctor?

The Exorcist (1973) (SPOILERS) Vast swathes have been written on The Exorcist , duly reflective of its cultural impact. In a significant respect, it’s the first blockbuster – forget Jaws – and also the first of a new kind of special-effects movie. It provoked controversy across all levels of the socio-political spectrum, for explicit content and religious content, both hailed and denounced for the same. William Friedkin, director of William Peter Blatty’s screenplay based on Blatty’s 1971 novel, would have us believe The Exorcist is “ a film about the mystery of faith ”, but it’s evidently much more – and less – than that. There’s a strong argument to be made that movies having the kind of seismic shock on the landscape this one did aren’t simply designed to provoke rumination (or exultation); they’re there to profoundly influence society, even if largely by osmosis, and when one looks at this picture’s architects, such an assessment only gains in credibility.

I work for the guys that pay me to watch the guys that pay you. And then there are, I imagine, some guys that are paid to watch me.

The Day of the Dolphin (1973) (SPOILERS) Perhaps the most bizarre thing out of all the bizarre things about The Day of the Dolphin is that one of its posters scrupulously sets out its entire dastardly plot, something the movie itself doesn’t outline until fifteen minutes before the end. Mike Nichols reputedly made this – formerly earmarked for Roman Polanski, Jack Nicholson and Sharon Tate, although I’m dubious a specific link can be construed between its conspiracy content and the Manson murders - to fulfil a contract with The Graduate producer Joseph Levine. It would explain the, for him, atypical science-fiction element, something he seems as comfortable with as having a hairy Jack leaping about the place in Wolf .

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013) (SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight ; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

This risotto is shmackin’, dude.

Stranger Things Season 4: Part I (SPOILERS) I haven’t had cause, or the urge, to revisit earlier seasons of Stranger Things , but I’m fairly certain my (relatively) positive takes on the first two sequel seasons would adjust down somewhat if I did (a Soviet base under Hawkins? DUMB soft disclosure or not, it’s pretty dumb). In my Season Three review, I called the show “ Netflix’s best-packaged junk food. It knows not to outstay its welcome, doesn’t cause bloat and is disposable in mostly good ways ” I fairly certain the Duffer’s weren’t reading, but it’s as if they decided, as a rebuke, that bloat was the only way to go for Season Four. Hence episodes approaching (or exceeding) twice the standard length. So while the other points – that it wouldn’t stray from its cosy identity and seasons tend to merge in the memory – hold fast, you can feel the ambition of an expansive canvas faltering at the hurdle of Stranger Things ’ essential, curated, nostalgia-appeal inconsequentiality.

That, my lad, was a dragon.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) (SPOILERS) It’s alarming how quickly Peter Jackson sabotaged all the goodwill he amassed in the wake of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. A guy who started out directing deliciously deranged homemade horror movies ended up taking home the Oscar for a fantasy movie, of all genres. And then he blew it. He went from a filmmaker whose naysayers were the exception to one whose remaining cheerleaders are considered slightly maladjusted. The Desolation of Smaug recovers some of the territory Jackson has lost over the last decade, but he may be too far-gone to ever regain his crown. Perhaps in years to come The Lord of the Rings trilogy will be seen as an aberration in his filmography. There’s a cartoonishness to the gleeful, twisted anarchy on display in his earlierr work that may be more attuned to the less verimilitudinous aspects of King Kong and The Hobbit s. The exceptions are his female-centric character dramas, Heavenly Creat

Gizmo caca!

Gremlins (1984) I didn’t get to see Gremlins at the cinema. I wanted to, as I had worked myself into a state of great anticipation. There was a six-month gap between its (unseasonal) US release and arrival in the UK, so I had plenty of time to devour clips of cute Gizmo on Film ’84 (the only reason ever to catch Barry Norman was a tantalising glimpse of a much awaited movie, rather than his drab, colourless, reviews) and Gremlins trading cards that came with bubble gum attached (or was it the other way round?). But Gremlins ’ immediate fate for many an eager youngster in Britain was sealed when, after much deliberation, the BBFC granted it a 15 certificate. I had just turned 12, and at that time an attempt to sneak in to see it wouldn’t even have crossed my mind. I’d just have to wait for the video. I didn’t realise it then (because I didn’t know who he was as a filmmaker), but Joe Dante’s irrepressible anarchic wit would have a far stronger effect on me than the un