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

Maybe he had one too many peanut butter and fried banana sandwiches.

3000 Miles to Graceland (2001) (SPOILERS) The kind of movie that makes your average Tarantino knockoff look classy, 3000 Miles to Graceland is both aggressively unpleasant and acutely absent any virtues, either as a script or a stylistic exercise. The most baffling thing about it is how it attracted Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell, particularly since both ought to have been extra choosy at this point, having toplined expensive bombs in the previous half decade that made them significantly less bankable names. And if you’re wondering how this managed to cost the $62m reported on Wiki, it didn’t; Franchise Pictures, one of the backers, was in the business of fraudulently inflating budgets .

We’re looking into a possible pattern of nationwide anti-Catholic hate crimes.

Vampires aka John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter limps less-than-boldly onward, his desiccated cadaver no longer attentive to the filmic basics of quality, taste, discernment, rhyme or reason. Apparently, he made his pre-penultimate picture to see if his enthusiasm for the process truly had drained away, and he only went and discovered he really enjoyed himself. It doesn’t show. Vampires is as flat, lifeless, shoddily shot, framed and edited as the majority of his ’90s output, only with a repellent veneer of macho bombast spread on top to boot.

I dreamed about a guy in a dirty red and green sweater.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) (SPOILERS) I first saw A Nightmare on Elm Street a little under a decade after its release, and I was distinctly underwhelmed five or so sequels and all the hype. Not that it didn’t have its moments, but there was an “It’ll do” quality that reflects most of the Wes Craven movies I’ve seen. Aside from the postmodern tease of A New Nightmare – like Last Action Hero , unfairly maligned – I’d never bothered with the rest of the series, in part because I’m just not that big a horror buff, but also because the rule that the first is usually the best in any series, irrespective of genre, tends to hold out more often than not. So now I’m finally getting round to them, and it seemed only fair to start by giving Freddy’s first another shot. My initial reaction holds true.

Remember. Decision. Consequence.

Day Break (2006) (SPOILERS) Day Break is the rare series that was lucky to get cancelled. And not in a mercy-killing way. It got to tell its story. Sure, apparently there were other stories. Other days to break. But would it have justified going there? Or would it have proved tantalising/reticent about the elusive reason its protagonist has to keep stirring and repeating? You bet it would. Offering occasional crumbs, and then, when it finally comes time to wrap things up, giving an explanation that satisfies no one/is a cop out/offers a hint at some nebulous existential mission better left to the viewer to conjure up on their own. Best that it didn’t even try to go there.

I must remind you that the scanning experience is usually a painful one.

Scanners (1981) (SPOILERS) David Cronenberg has made a career – albeit, he may have “matured” a little over the past few decades, so it is now somewhat less foregrounded – from sticking up for the less edifying notions of evolution and modern scientific thought. The idea that regress is, in fact, a form of progress, and unpropitious developments are less dead ends than a means to a state or states as yet unappreciated. He began this path with some squeam-worthy body horrors, before genre hopping to more explicit science fiction with Scanners , and with it, greater critical acclaim and a wider audience. And it remains a good movie, even as it suffers from an unprepossessing lead and rather fumbles the last furlong, cutting to the chase when a more measured, considered approach would have paid dividends.

You seem particularly triggered right now. Can you tell me what happened?

Trailers The Matrix Resurrections   The Matrix A woke n ? If nothing else, the arrival of The Matrix Resurrections trailer has yielded much retrospective back and forth on the extent to which the original trilogy shat the bed. That probably isn’t its most significant legacy, of course, in terms of a series that has informed, subconsciously or otherwise, intentionally or otherwise, much of the way in which twenty-first century conspiracy theory has been framed and discussed. It is however, uncontested that a first movie that was officially the “best thing ever”, that aesthetically and stylistically reinvigorated mainstream blockbuster cinema in a manner unseen again until Fury Road , squandered all that good will with astonishing speed by the time 2003 was over.

We got two honkies out there dressed like Hassidic diamond merchants.

The Blues Brothers (1980) (SPOILERS) I had limited awareness of John Belushi’s immense mythos before  The Blues Brothers arrived on retail video in the UK (so 1991?) My familiarity with SNL performers really began with Ghostbusters ’ release, which meant picking up the trail of Jake and Elwood was very much a retrospective deal. I knew Animal House , knew Belushi’s impact there, knew 1941 (the Jaws parody was the best bit), knew Wired was a biopic better avoided. But the minor renaissance he, and they, underwent in the UK in the early ’90s seemed to have been initiated by Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers, of all things; Everybody Needs Somebody was part of their That Sounds Good to Me medley, the first of their hits not to make No.1, and Everybody ’s subsequent single release then just missed the Top Ten. Perhaps it was this that hastened CIC/Universal to putting the comedy out on video. Had the movie done the rounds on UK TV in the 80s? If so, it managed to pass me by. Even bef

Maybe I’m a heel who hates guys who hate heels.

Crimewave (1985) (SPOILERS) A movie’s makers’ disowning it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s nothing of worth therein, just that they don’t find anything of worth in it. Or the whole process of making it too painful to contemplate. Sam Raimi’s had a few of those, experiencing traumas with Darkman a few years after Crimewave . But I, blissfully unaware of such issues, was bowled over by it when I caught it a few years after its release (I’d hazard it was BBC2’s American Wave 2 season in 1988). This was my first Sam Raimi movie, and I was instantly a fan of whoever it was managed to translate the energy and visual acumen of a cartoon to the realm of live action. The picture is not without its problems – and at least some of them directly correspond to why it’s so rueful for Raimi – but that initial flair I recognised still lifts it.

I admit it. I live in a highly excited state of overstimulation.

Videodrome (1983) (SPOILERS) I’m one of those who thinks Cronenberg’s version of Total Recall would have been much more satisfying than the one we got (which is pretty good, but flawed; I’m referring to the Arnie movie, of course, not the Farrell). The counter is that Videodrome makes a Cronenberg Philip K Dick adaptation largely redundant. It makes his later Existenz largely redundant too. Videodrome remains a strikingly potent achievement, taking the directors thematic obsessions to the next level, one as fixated on warping the mind as the body. Like many Cronenbergs, it isn’t quite there, but it exerts a hold on the viewer not dissimilar to the one slowly entwining its protagonist Max Renn (James Woods).

White nights getting to you?

Insomnia (2002) (SPOILERS) I’ve never been mad keen on Insomnia . It’s well made, well-acted, the screenplay is solid and it fits in neatly with Christopher Nolan’s abiding thematic interests, but it’s… There’s something entirely adequateabout it. It isn’t pushing any kind of envelope. It’s happy to be the genre-bound crime study it is and nothing more, something emphasised by Pacino’s umpteenth turn as an under-pressure cop.