“The Big Short”
In the financial crisis of 2007 – 08, when the United States housing and credit bubbles burst and securities’ values tumbled downwards, the key culprits, it is generally agreed, were those who were trusted to keep American and world finances secure: Wall Street investors, traders, bankers, regulators, ratings agencies, related governmental departments, et cetera. Meanwhile, those who suffered most severely as a result were the people who had done the trusting, who had borrowed money to buy homes and establish security for their families, and were ultimately roughed up by the ruthlessly greedy and fraudulent system. One of the virtues of The Big Short, Adam McKay’s adaptation of Michael Lewis’s account of the build-up to the crisis, is that it both implicates the whole host of parties judged to be responsible, and shows concern and sympathy for those who bore the difficult consequences, and what those consequences largely entailed.
The Big Short is being called a comedy by most viewers and critics, but formally it doesn’t quite qualify. The genre is satire, the form is probably much closer to a tragicomedy, and the predominant stylistic elements are those of a mockumentary, in which a fictional story is told using documentary techniques, such as interviews and ostensible in-the-moment camera tricks, capturing what seem like real events – think along the lines of the television shows The Office and Modern Family. The two chief differences between those shows and this film, however, is that they are entirely comedic, whereas The Big Short depicts a global catastrophe and all its harrowing implications; and the stories of the two shows really are fictions, while The Big Short keeps reassuring us of its non-fiction credentials, to varying degrees of persuasion and annoyance.
The three stories of the groups of investors who spotted the bubble and traded on their insights are, so far as I can tell, nearly entirely true. And even if you don’t do any research after seeing the film on its veracity, the deliberately obnoxious voiceover of Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) won’t waste an opportunity to certify it during the film. There are moments in a scene where McKay freezes the frame, and Vennett explains that what you’re watching, while entirely plausible and suitable for the film’s plot arc, isn’t exactly how it happened, and the characters step out of the scene for a moment, look right at the camera, and describe the real-life events that took place instead. Presumably, McKay and Lewis wished to give us as accurate a portrait as they could of the characters and events they portray and are anticipating any critics who would jump up and shout that that’s not actually what went down that day – to which my response is: why not just show us what really happened? What we’re told were the actual events could be made just as dramatically satisfying as the embellished events have been; and, if not, who goes to the movies anyway bent on seeing a feature serve the strict dictates of literalism?
This tricksy gimmick is surpassed in its ostentatious knowingness by McKay’s admittedly hilarious habit of explaining complex financial terms and concepts by cutting away from the action to celebrities playing themselves and offering neat metaphors to clear away any confusion. Anthony Bourdain, for example, explains banks’ collateralised debt obligations (CDOs) by throwing three-day-old fish into an expensive seafood stew, and Selena Gomez and Richard Thaler simplify the idea of trading synthetic CDOs while playing a game of blackjack in a Las Vegas casino. These short segments, like the rest of the film, are edited briskly and relentlessly, and here is where this restlessness is most intrusive, with the guest personalities having to turn from one angle to another every few seconds, just to keep facing the camera. It’s particularly disturbing in the earliest of these segments, in which Margot Robbie explains her piece on fraudulent and risky behaviour taken on by banks while luxuriating in a bubble bath and drinking from her glass of champagne, which is precisely the moment one least wishes to be distracted from what’s being shown on the screen.
The primary thrill of the film arises from the depictions of the processes of research, investigation, and investment decision-making undergone by each of the groups of investors in the film. The first we’re introduced to, Michael Burry (Christian Bale), is a one-eyed hedge fund manager with Asperger’s, who finds the markers of a bubble in the data of the national top twenty bonds made up of thousands of mortgages. He scrutinises the many pages of figures and calculations, and comes to the conclusion that somewhere in the second quarter of 2007, there will be a crash. We next meet the outspoken hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carrell), who is alerted to the market realities by a misplaced phone call by Vennett, who has heard of Burry from fellow traders. Baum and his three-man team set off to check the facts, and find something far more distressing than what they had imagined. They travel to residential developments and suburbs in Florida, and discover the grim reality of growing numbers of defaulters on home loans, of homeowners who have more than one loan on a house despite flattening home prices and salary levels, of financiers who approve and give out loans to people who can’t pay it all back (often people with no income, or immigrants who don’t even understand the terms of their loans), of ratings agencies who dishonestly rate bonds, of undisclosed conflicts of interest throughout the financial industry, and of the reckless bank traders who behave either fraudulently, ignorantly, or (most likely) both. The third group of investors are two young graduates, Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), who started a hedge fund in their garage, and are aided by a retired trader named Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), now a recluse who gathers stores in preparation for an apocalypse. They find a paper by Vennett and decide to act just as Baum and Burry have, which is to short sell vast amounts of bonds made up of homeowners’ mortgages – hence the title of the film.
A short sale is the sale of an asset by an investor who has only borrowed the asset. He sells it at the current market price and, at an appointed date in the future, must pay back the asset at its future market price to the party from whom he borrowed it. Therefore, if the price of the asset goes up, he has to pay back more than he received in the sale and he loses money; if the price of the asset goes down, he has to pay back less than he received in the sale and he makes money, and so an investor making a short sale is always betting that the price of the asset will drop. Burry, Baum, Vennett, Geller, Shipley, and Rickert, who all make enormous short sales on mortgage bonds, are thus betting on a crash in the housing and credit markets. Burry is the first to take action, and when he goes to banks in 2005, proposing these transactions of hundreds of millions of dollars, the traders who, like everyone else, believe that the housing market is going nowhere but up, gladly accept what they call his “free money,” and cackle with laughter at their supposed triumph. The same happens to the other investors in 2006, and the audience, knowing all too well what happened two short years later, sit back and chuckle at the great greed and arrogance of the traders, and revel in the large sums of money we know our investors will make.
We revel, that is, until we’re reminded, in a sobering reprimand by Brad Pitt of Geller and Shipley, that what they’re betting on, and what they stand to gain a lot of money from, is in fact the collapse of the world economy. Baum realises this around the same time, to his horror, when talking to a particularly vulgar and creepy trader of synthetic CDOs, who scoffs at Baum’s righteous protestations. What concern of ours are ethics and morals, the entire professional corps of the financial industry seems to shriek out, as they sell yet a riskier bond and glean yet a shinier profit. At a few moments, one is reminded of the giddy excesses and lurid immorality of Jordan Belfort and his hooligans in The Wolf of Wall Street.
Except, as cinema, The Big Short is a dizzyingly far cry from Martin Scorsese’s recent masterpiece. The chief problem, I feel, is in McKay’s persistent chasing after the truth, and hoping to ensnare it in the bonds of naturalism. McKay makes a show of the inconspicuousness of the camera from the beginning – with the customary quick adjustments of the zoom, or refocus when filming a talking head – and suddenly, in a number of moments, shatters his fourth wall and has characters addressing the audience directly to the camera. The scenes of documentary realism are the film’s weakness, while its moments of caprice and playful ploys are its delight.
McKay’s camera is meant to be the fly on the wall, watching characters’ conversations, never intruding on the action and never imposing a personal or subjective perspective. This would be great documentary, but because the action we see is scripted and rehearsed, carefully structured and meticulously edited, it falters a little as drama. And McKay, as the director of the excellent – and entirely non-natural – comedies Anchorman and its sequel, really should know better. Blessed as he is with an accomplished cast and enthralling material, he should turn up his levels of artifice – as in the scene in which Ryan Gosling acknowledges the audience’s sure disapproval, or when Margot Robbie waves us away from her bathtub with a brash “Now fuck off” – rather than trying to iron it out – as in the scene where Christian Bale faux-touchingly describes the social dysfunction of his childhood. McKay, because of his obvious skill and the depth and breadth of the statements he wishes to make with his film, reaches the limits of his naturalistic style very quickly, and the potential the film carries makes this unintended constraint all the more exasperating.
What McKay has also not realised – or intentionally ignored – is the influence and power a filmmaker wields in his editing. When Scorsese cuts his movies, such as The Wolf of Wall Street, he realises that in each cut between a pair of images there is a juxtaposition from which each viewer subconsciously creates their own subjective meaning and imagines their own transition – in effect, their own third image. Scorsese respects this subjective creation of the viewer, and edits his films with maximum consideration, and with exquisite and minute control. McKay, again, edits as though he were cutting a real documentary, with images he hasn’t created himself, and meanings he doesn’t wish to formulate himself, and so any psychic, emotional, spiritual, artistic, or cinematic ideas and experiences that may have arisen from the material fall through McKay’s wide and pseudo-organic net.
No doubt you’ll enjoy The Big Short when you see it – whether or not you’re acquainted with the jargon and practices of the financial professions – and you’ll be gratified by the harsh stance it takes against large corporations, their practices, and those who allow it; the performances hit notes of skill and patent craft that elicited my grateful admiration. But McKay grants no insight into the thoughts and emotions of the characters beyond the demands of the plot or the petty contrivances of psychology that are meant to stand in for characters’ humanity, such as Burry’s social difficulties or Baum’s grief-induced anger. The impersonation abilities of Bale, as well as the acting capabilities and comedic gifts of Carrell, Pitt, and Gosling are all on shining display here, but there’s nothing beneath their lines of flashy humour and intelligence; McKay and his ensemble give us wit with no soul – we’re impressed and entertained, but not affected or surprised. Like the Best Picture nominee American Hustle from two Oscar seasons ago, The Big Short is a classic example of the good impeding the great, and its considerable merits get in the way of a truly affecting and rapturous experience at the movies.