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A reflection on Adam McKay's 'The Big Short'

January 12, 2016

They knew everything, and they knew nothing.
Starring Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Steve Carell, and Brad Pitt, The Big Short (2015) packs a great deal into what feels like a rather brief two hour and ten minute explanation of the 2008 housing crisis. This feat isn't really a surprise; Michael Lewis’ book covers the housing bust in a mere 200 pages or so. That said, Adam McKay's comedic talents as a director drive both the film's sense of brevity and its ability to surprise audiences through a conflation of two conflicting tones: the tragic and the comedic. 

A director whose reputation is staked on such films as Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004) and Anchorman 2 (2013) is a somewhat unexpected choice to direct one of the first major films to do combat with Wall Street and the housing crisis. Except The Big Short's message would be just as helpful for curing Ron Burgundy of his goofball misogyny as it is in alerting civilians to the banking industry's habitual malpractice. The director's heart is in the right place and he is capable, but is the goal of the film even possible, that is to say, can a film, as opposed to a legislature or a tidal wave, solve a nation's financial woes?

When Gosling's Jared Vennett breaks the fourth wall at the start of the film, he's yelling, "Cannonball!" but adding a seriously guys before splashing into some rather deep waters. 


It should also be noted that none of these characters are necessarily the protagonist and neither are they particularly heroic, with the possible exception of Carell’s Mark Baum. This absence of a real good guy marks The Big Short as a different sort of exposure film than All the President’s Men (1976) or even this year’s Spotlight (2015). This observation is not to say that The Big Short is better than these other films or even more complicated, just that the financial crisis overwhelms everything and everyone. 

These feelings of helplessness—the inability to save the common man and woman—speak primarily through the frustrated rants of Carell’s character, whose inability to control the market’s plunge parallel his helplessness to prevent a brother’s suicidal dive off an office building.

Hence, the film also conflates the ability to profit in this environment with the notion of survivor's guilt. As Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) warns those willing to profit off the looming crisis: "You just bet against the American economy." To win in this scenario, for these characters, becomes something different than simply not losing. Winning in this scenario becomes actively rooting against the fortunes of others. 

No one fixed this, and, quite possibly, could not fix it. Greed is a clever beast. Build a fence, and greed will find a clever, even creative, way around it. The characters played by the above mentioned actors aim to profit from what no one else sees, and when the audience sympathizes with them, the audience chooses the well-being of these individuals and their partners over the rest of the general population, including much of the financial sector. This double-bind (drawing joy and remorse from the same act) is an absurdity, and this absurdity is the film's take on capitalism.      

The free market devouring the free market.
The Big Short suggests a system so rigged and so out of control it functions much more like a genetically engineered dinosaur in JurassicWorld (2015)—devouring anything and everyone— than a free and open market that creates a habitable living space.

Personally, I’m not sure any film this year frightened me more than The Big Short. Because once it ended, I and everyone else in the theater had to face a rather simple and prosaic truth: we don’t know shit about financing. And, more importantly, knowing the rules doesn’t even guarantee those rules will be followed. The reality of the crisis is that the rules of the game, despite being invented by human individuals, no longer applied.

And that’s what really drives The Big Short: this train has no conductor.

More than any of the experts and geniuses (all played by big name Hollywood stars) who audition for the film’s lead role, at the heart of The Big Short is a clear and polemic purpose: justice is absent from the capitalist construct. Wall Street is a place where bankers change and shift the goal posts and sidelines as they feel like it, but even they don’t understand how those changes will impact the market. After all, like good Catholics not believing priests could molest their innocent children, the bankers are blinded by faith in a system that requires winners and losers and, at times, even chaos.

Scary, right?

Meanwhile, the film also drives home the point that prior to the crisis everyday Americans (like myself) may have been left unaware to our own financial fragility due to our distracted tendencies and herd-like habits. Through montages of tabloid images and music videos, the film argues that just as bankers practice blind faith in a magical market, everyday Americans fall for the glitz and glamour and artifices of capitalism's celebrity facade. The Big Short then infiltrates these mechanisms that are more often than not distractions and, instead, relies on celebrity cameos to explain the complexities of the free market. This maneuver co-opts an advertising strategy and transforms it into an educational video.  

The American Everyman tasting of the free market.

In that vein, I now turn to an anecdote borrowed from my sister and her husband’s attempt to see the film.

They showed up at the theater and bought tickets to The Big Short, possibly for entertainment value and possibly for educational purposes. At some point in their date night outing, the projector malfunctioned—the camera shorted out—and they could not see what they wanted to see. They ended up watching Concussion (2015) instead. 

In other words, they ended up thinking about the NFL, the human brain, and watching Will Smith try and save the world, or at least some of its richest athletes from a game. Participation in this game, it should be noted, demands the destruction of those who play it. Furthermore, in the zeitgeist of Concussion and the medical research that preceded it, parents must now question whether they allow their children to play a game that despite the donning of helmets and pads is still not safe. 

What does this have to do with The Big Short? This past weekend I read an editorial in Time Magazine. In it, Dan Kadlec argues for parents to start training children the age of three for the financial games life requires of them. While both banks and consumers were at fault for the financial aspects of the market's nosedive, consumers footed the bill. Furthermore, after the federal government failed to change how the banks operate, we must now teach our children to avoid being easy prey to a system looking to feast on them in the near future. 

In Jurassic World, the engineered dinosaur proves invincible until the velociraptors unite against it. Just something to think about as Hollywood strolls up and down the red carpet, turning its own attention from  a winter of institutional armageddons and, once again, towards a summer of blockbuster heaven, ringing up paydays here and paydays there.  

One last story: Between the years of 2006 and 2008, I spent a lot of time quoting, often with drunken college friends, that earlier Adam McKay film, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy:

“Milk was a bad choice.”

Without the success of Will Ferrell's Burgundy mispronouncing San Diego, McKay probably doesn't receive the call to direct a film like The Big Short, proving how all the world's deception must first pass through a whale's vagina before we can ever hope to recognize it.

Bryan Harvey tweets @LawnChairBoys

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