There are some things that too painful to look at head on, things that you have to laugh about because if you didn’t laugh you’d cry uncontrollably or go berserk with anger. One of those things may be the worldwide financial crisis of 2007-2008, still too fresh and raw in people’s memories to be of merely academic interest and thus too painful to look at with serious disinterest. Was it the irresponsible, arrogant avarice or merely the willful blatant stupidity of Wall Street and major investment bankers that brought the world economy to its knees, threw average people out of their homes and destroyed their pensions and their economic futures? There is certainly plenty of evidence for both in Adam McKay’s new film The Big Short, based on Michael Lewis’s bestselling book on the crisis, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine.
McKay, best known for directing Will Ferrell vehicles like Anchorman and Talladega Nights, brings his twisted sense of humor to bear on the material of Lewis’s look, and with Charles Randolph (Love and Other Drugs) has produced a script that focuses on four financial types who independently come to realize that the American economy is about to tank, and who decide to short the housing bubble, essentially betting on the collapse of the mortgage bond market, ultimately making millions. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), an eccentric fund manager with a glass eye who is clearly somewhere on the Asperger’s spectrum, comes to the realization in 2005 that the market, based on subprime loans, would collapse sometime in 2007, once the adjustable rates began to kick in on the subprime loans that had become the basis of the housing market, forcing thousands to default on their mortgages. When Burry, investing over a billion dollars of his clients’ money, talks to Wall Street’s largest financial institutions about what he wants to do, they laugh at him and, of course, take as much as his money as he is willing to part with.
Only Burry is real: the film’s other major characters are all composites. A money manager named Mark Baum (Steve Carell), eccentric and disenchanted with the system, is approached by Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling, who narrates the film), an oily and cynical trader who has become aware of Burry’s strategy, and the two ultimately make common cause and invest as well. And then there are Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), a couple of small-time self-made independent investors who serendipitously come across one of Vennett’s proposals and are convinced that they can make a killing by shorting the housing market themselves. They contact their mentor, Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), a former banker now living the life of a paranoid recluse, and with his help and advice make millions when the housing bubble collapses. It is Rickert who, when the economy finally crashes and we, like Geller and Shipley, feel an urge to celebrate with the film’s protagonists who have been proven right against the smug hypocritical purveyors of greed who have had their comeuppance, tells them to tone down the elation: all they have done is make money on the backs of millions of people who have essentially lost everything.
Because there are no heroes in this film. There are certainly villains, and McKay lambastes them, particularly in scenes where Baum and his partners investigate the housing market in Florida and the realtors, essentially the foot soldiers of the housing hoax, condemn themselves out of their own mouths. “Why are they confessing to us?” asks one of Baum’s partners. “They’re not,” comes the answer. “They’re bragging.” And Baum, conscience stricken as he is, predicts that in the end the big bankers who caused the disaster will escape its consequences, and all of the problems will be blamed on “poor people and immigrants,” thereby increasing the relevance of the film for contemporary America. But Baum himself is no hero, as he ultimately makes millions himself on the collapse.
Pitt is admirably understated as the outsider who sees all of the implications of the coming apocalypse. Gosling is almost unrecognizable. Losing himself in the role playing against type as the tanned, button-downed, slick haired and otherwise oily Vennett, narrator but least likeable of the principal characters. Carell proves that his Oscar nomination for last year’s Foxcatcher was no fluke as he turns in the most sympathetic performance of the film as the tormented and mercurial Baum. Bale’s performance is perhaps the most controversial, as some viewers have found it quirky and distracting, but his performance captures the difficulties in social interaction and limited empathy characteristic of Asperger’s syndrome, which manages to distance him from the audience as well as his peers in the film.
This distancing seems to be a part of McKay’s strategy. Gosling’s voiceover narration helps establish that distance as well. Remember that the movie, whatever else it is, is a comedy, and that distance, objectivity, is one of the classical criteria for the comic narrative: one cannot feel too close to comic characters in a satiric comedy or what happens to them will feel pitiable rather than amusing. This explains one of the other quirkiest parts of the movie: McKay on several occasions breaks the fourth wall (in a way that recalls the format of Carell’s popular program The Office) with what some have seen as disruptive (but which are in fact deliberately objectifying) vignettes used to explain confusing financial jargon in a way that allows his audience to understand precisely how Wall Street messed them up. At one point, for instance, Australian bombshell Margot Robbie explains subprime loans from a bubble-bath, and at another super-chef Anthony Bourdain explains “collateralized debt obligation” from his kitchen. Later pop-singer Selena Gomez has a cameo in a casino explaining “synthetic CDO’s.” The result is hilarious—and educational.
McKay does not have to make up a lot of absurd situations to provide the humor of this film. The absurdity of the system itself and the people responsible for it provide enough humor to carry the movie. But it is not the gentle, good-natured humor that accompanies the rise from constriction to freedom in a romantic comedy—the young couple overcoming the barriers that may have been in the way of their happiness. No, this film depends on the kind of laughter that attends the revelation and ridiculing of folly and vice, in the hope of purging those traits from our society. The film does make clear the fact that for the most part, the crisis was provoked by folly on the part of the lesser players, vice on the part of the major ones. And so there is no real happy ending. I’m not really giving away any spoilers since we all know what followed upon the economic collapse: a bailout, no jail time for any of the criminal financiers, no new regulations because of the banking lobby, and back to business as usual. The result? If we accept the film’s logic, and there is no convincing reason why we shouldn’t, a clear warning that it can easily happen again if we let it.
Three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare for this one.