January of 2012, a series of mailed notices from Bank of America revealed to my roommates and me that our landlord had not made a single payment on his mortgage since he’d bought the house, many years before we’d moved in. I called up Mike, the landlord, and told him about the threats of foreclosure; he nonchalantly explained that he was simply waiting for the bank to refinance his loans, that it was President Obama’s fault that it was taking so long (i.e., refinancing now involved a lengthy bureaucratic process created by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act), and that when that did happen all would be rectified and we would stop getting those annoying foreclosure notices. Powerless and illiterate in all things financial, I could only take my landlord’s word, scratch my head, and hope for the best. If at that point in my life I had seen a movie like The Big Short, I might have suspected that Mike was about to default on his mortgage after having taken two years’ worth of monthly rent payments from us. I would have also at least vaguely understood that his strategic default and the bank’s subsequent foreclosure was a fairly common process that left the renters as the lone prey and absolved everyone else playing the game above us.
It hurts when you realize that you exist at the bottom of a convoluted system that is being auto-piloted into oblivion under the watch of complacent bankers, brokers, fund managers, credit raters, and politicians, all of whom have long since secured their own immunity. The Big Short, directed by Adam McKay and based on the book by Michael Lewis, examines that system from the point of view of a few “outsiders” on the inside—“weirdos” of Wall Street who dare to grasp in full the fraudulence of the housing market so that they can score on its impending cataclysm while everyone around them turns away in a learned, incentivized blindness. McKay, who is responsible for a slew of absurd 2000s Will Ferrell comedies, has set out in this film to entertain audiences a la Anchorman (2004) while simultaneously reporting the tragically real story with the moral outrage of a Michael Moore documentary. The result is a wildly entertaining and imaginative depiction of the 2008 global economic disaster; to the credit of the filmmaker and his cast and crew, however, the ultimate success of the film is not in its tangential comedy and flair but in its improbably steady gaze at a culture that enabled and then shrugged at the crisis. Make no mistake about it: The Big Short is a serious work of cinema that merely knows its American audience too well not to employ heedless diversion every once in a while.
One major criticism of the movie has been that its lightheartedness insulates audiences from having to consider the hard lessons of a true story. The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane claims that audiences “wind up rooting for” the protagonists—fund managers and “garage band traders” played by Christian Bale, Steve Carell, and Ryan Gosling—after the movie has “succumbed to its own brio.” Interestingly enough, Joe Morgenstern at the Wall Street Journal makes essentially this same point in unmitigated praise of the film, applauding its ability to “sweep away any concerns about asking us to root for people who get unimaginably rich by betting against the health of the American economy.” In both cases, it seems the critics have to some extent dismissed the heart underlying the filmmaker’s rationale and the actors’ performances. This would appear to be consistent with how the audience at the showing I attended did not simply cackle at the inventive irreverence of the film (e.g., chef Anthony Bourdain is enlisted to explain esoteric financial concepts with a fish stew) but also laughed at the jokes that the characters make at the expense of the American public.
As Lane correctly maintains, these moments can be frustrating for the conscious viewer because they allow us to forget that we actually live in this world where greed reigns, poor people are trampled on, and public servants must deal with the shitty aftermath. The film’s tone grants permission for many to turn and laugh at material that implicitly mocks us; however, the punchlines themselves can also be seen as honest depictions of a thriving capitalist culture that employs bravado to gloss its moral bankruptcy. I see this as an artistic choice to make the film more accessible; McKay elects to fool us into thinking we’re getting Ron Burgundy, then gives us Lehman Brothers. Is it the director’s fault that American moviegoers often don’t want to discern the difference?
My reading of the audience’s reaction to the bombast of The Big Short is not that people genuinely find the story amusing, but rather, that we are experiencing discomfort while simultaneously expecting to be entertained. I hate it when an audience laughs off the lines that are intended to make us sweat, missing the subtler ironies, but to me this feels more like a problem specific to a medium that has historically been purposed as a spectacle for the benefit of social life, and only secondarily as a means for people to contemplate their culture and themselves. That McKay’s work enables us to enjoy ourselves in the moment does not necessarily mean that, later on, we aren’t fuming. After we left the theater, for example, my partner, invigorated yet deeply troubled by what she’d just watched, remarked bitterly that she’d gone to college with many of the young Wall Street shark types portrayed in the film. If at first glance we are laughing, it is out of our own insecurity. Surely in many cases, people are laughing to postpone feelings of complicity. Suffice it to say, if anyone is truly cheering for the protagonists of The Big Short it is not so much an effect of the director’s craft but more likely a function of our own evasive tendencies.
To be sure, the success in Bale’s, Carell’s, and Gosling’s performances is not in how they capture our sympathy but how they confuse, conflict, and frighten us. Gosling’s and Bale’s characters appeal because they are professionally ostracized, lifelong underdogs, but through and through they baffle and disgust us with their behavior. For me, Carell’s performance was most breathtaking; his character condemns the system out of a combination of moral righteousness and lived personal trauma, yet he embodies the inexplicable hypocrisy of his character’s profiteering livelihood with chilling believability. All in all, the film is presenting us with the imagery of American theft not with the perverse glory and thrill of The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), or, say, another DiCaprio film, Catch Me If You Can (2003), but rather in more subdued shots of corporate financial drabness and decay, glimpses of desolate suburban neighborhoods, moments of bleary, abject metropolitan life. The masses of Wall Street suits and backroom number-crunchers are portrayed not so much as nameless, voiceless set pieces but as a flock of white, male anxiety that is often microphoned and magnified to expose these players’ willful ignorance or self-interested conformism.
In the end, The Big Short is exceedingly fun and entirely devastating. The formula is not unlike what one finds in some of John Steinbeck’s novels. We are left not only ruing the past but sickened and disillusioned by how the past is likely set up to repeat itself. To this end, the movie impresses as a work of consciousness and earnest activism, disguised as it may be as another uproarious crowd-pleaser. Anyone who cares about the dominant American aptitude for blaming “immigrants, the poor, and for the first time, teachers” for economic catastrophe, who laments our favorite financial pastime of “turn[ing] people into numbers” for personal profit, can find inspiration in this film. What’s more, those in need of an education will appreciate McKay’s commitment to an accessible, aesthetically agreeable experience as they begin to understand how an entire sector engineered a disaster but never thought to stop it from happening, and afterward, emerged unscathed.