The Big Short is my favorite movie of the 2016 Awards Season*. I feel a little bad saying that, in light of yesterday’s Oscar nominations and their slate of white, white (blonde) faces, and the fact that The Big Short is, well, short on both women and minority actors. But the fact is I watched it through twice, and would happily sit through a third viewing. The film is alternately funny and gutting, the cast is pretty much universally brilliant, and the directing–from Adam McKay, who brought us films like Anchorman, Anchorman 2, and Funny or Die’s The Landlord–is impressive, avant-garde without being distracting, and making a complicated subject accessible.
* Okay, it’s tied with Mad Max: Fury Road, but since that came out over the summer it doesn’t really feel like an Awards Season movie.
Not too accessible, mind you. Despite the sidebar scenes in which celebrities like Selena Gomez, Anthony Bourdain, and Margot Robbie (in a bubble bath) break the fourth wall and explain complicated financial structures in layman’s terms–one of the film’s more unique and amusing contrivances–I frequently found myself leaning in so I could follow the fast-paced dialogue about derivatives, mortgage-backed-securities, credit swaps, and so on.
The Big Short is far from the first film about the 2008 Financial Crisis, but it might be the best combination of sweeping and accessible. Too Big to Fail captured the moves and conversations happening inside the banks and the Federal Reserve, and films like 99 Homes capture the human cost across the nation, but The Big Short takes a wider scope and time period to show the viewer what happened, through the eyes of a handful of professionals who predicted the crash.
In case you’ve been living under a rock, The Big Short follows four major sets of characters who predict the collapse of the US housing market and the ensuing economic crash, and short-sell the mortgage market. Christian Bale is Michael Burry, the shoeless and socially-awkward private fund manager who first realizes that mortgage-backed securities (an investment product created in the 1980s and regarded as the rock-solid foundation of the US economy) had turned to garbage and were soon to collapse. The earliest scenes of the film follow Burry as he decides to short the housing market–something that has never been done, and that requires him to visit every major bank to request that they build a new product, a credit default swap, that will empower him to profit money from the collapse of the world economy. At each bank, he is mocked by the smug traders who muse that the housing market only ever goes up, and will surely never collapse–but sell him his product anyway.
Herein lies one of the film’s most subtle and successful feats: It manages to make the viewer root for the men who grew rich as millions of Americans lost their homes. It’s surprisingly easy to do when those characters are contrasted against the other smug and stupid financial professionals who honestly believe that a market, even the housing market, can only go up.
Ryan Gosling is the slimy banker who overhears a conversation about Burry’s new product and decides to sell them–including to the small firm headed by Mark Baum (Steve Carrell) and staffed by jaded and cynical traders whose skepticism leads to another of the film’s more redeeming sequences–a fact-finding mission in Florida, where they speak with real estate agents, mortgage brokers, and residents who have no idea they are only months from losing their homes.
The Big Short has a lot of fun with the naiveté of the banking industry in 2006, and the film is rife with dramatic irony, both comedic and dramatic. We the audience know what is coming, so we laugh at the Goldman Sachs executives who are literally struck speechless by Burry’s suggestion that their bank could ever be insolvent, and we (I, at least) get teary-eyed when Baum’s employees encounter a family man who realizes his home is mortgaged in his landlord’s dog’s name–and that said mortgage is 90 days past-due. As much fun as the film has, it never lets the viewer forget that there are real human beings affected by the tragedy that will make billionaires of its protagonists.
Thus our fourth set of protagonists–young traders from Colorado played by Charlie Geller and Finn Whitlock, and advised by a retired stock market exec-turned-survivalist played by Brad Pitt–are scolded by their mentor when they dare to dance in celebration of their impending fortune. It’s his job to remind them that the money they’ll be making comes at the cost of millions of Americans losing their jobs, their homes, their pensions, and their retirement accounts. “Every one percent employment goes up, 40,000 people die,” he tells them, and for the characters as well as the viewers, everything seems suddenly less amusing.
McKay uses risky cinematic devices with such a deft hand they barely stick out. Throughout the film, characters will break the fourth wall to deliver an aside, reminding us all that this is a fictional adaptation of actual events. When the young traders learn about credit default swaps by picking up a discarded prospectus in the lobby at JP Morgan, they immediately look to camera and tell the audience that’s not really how it happened. As often as it happens, it works–and by talking directly to the viewer, and helping guide them along, the characters help make us feel welcome in a world and an industry that is designed to frighten and baffle us.
Every actor raises his game, and plays against type. Bale’s Burry is pitiful in his awkward inability to form human connection. Carrell embodies repressed stress, his Mark Baum a steam boiler with the rivets bulging, about to burst. No one disappears into their role, however, as much as Gosling. In fact, when I watched the second time with a friend of mine, he’d been watching Gosling on screen for five minutes or more before he asked me when Ryan Gosling would be in this movie.
One of my favorite moments, which came to mind yesterday after the terrible news that Alan Rickman had died, is almost an aside and I suspect many people will miss it: As he’s feeling a moment of triumph, Gosling’s character (mis)quotes Hans Gruber from Die Hard: “And Caesar wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.”
It’s an example of the light touch McKay uses, in contrast with his earlier comedic films with their slipshod editing and hammy choose-your-own-punchline jokes. The Big Short is a delight–traumatic, amusing, and infuriating, and while it is yet another of Hollywood’s white male award movies, it is well deserving of your time and of its accolades.