(Dir. Adam McKay, United States, 2015)
As cinema’s vast history has shown, one of the most effective means of conveying messages – no matter how subtle or, conversely, on the nose – to compliant audiences is to couch a scathing critique in comedy. Even as war raged on across Europe and Hitler’s Germany remained a looming threat to democracy in the 1940s, films like Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be and Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca unapologetically lampooned the ideologies and supporters of the infamous dictator and, in Lubitsch’s case, daringly the man himself. Or, as the uncertainty of a perceived imminent nuclear holocaust plagued those on both sides of the Cold War divide throughout the twentieth century, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove shockingly poked fun at the idea of a room full of just a few men wielding the power to end the world. And, more recently, films as varied as Bong Joon-ho’s The Host and Andrew Stanton’s WALL*E have taken on environmental irresponsibility in bitingly satirical fashion. Through the years filmmakers with agendas have found the perfect formula to get their messages across: turning their causes into entertainment.
It should come as no surprise, then, that liberal-minded satirist Adam McKay – probably best known for Anchorman and other occasionally funny, occasionally political shenanigans with Will Ferrell – turned to comedy to take on the recent financial crisis and subsequent recession that left millions of Americans unemployed and unable to pay their mortgages. McKay teams with screenwriter Charles Randolph and a slew of A-list performers – notably without Ferrell – to bring Michael Lewis’ nonfiction book of the same name to the screen. With its timely subject matter, talented cast, and strategic release date, The Big Short appeared in its promotional cycle as textbook Oscar bait. And, while McKay’s film doesn’t do much to disavow that notion – not to mention its inevitable five Oscar nominations – it refreshingly rejects the typical prestige picture mold in favor of something rather unexpected.
For though it hits its obligatory melodramatic and conventional plot-fueled marks, The Big Short actually plays more like a documentary than a traditional narrative fiction film. From Ryan Gosling’s opening monologue – part voiceover, part direct address to the camera – onward, McKay’s film intentionally draws attention to its own farce. Throughout, characters consistently break the fourth wall and even admit when the filmmakers take artistic liberties with the actual events the film is based upon. This welcome self-reflexivity is all too rare in films based on true stories, and at times even recalls Jafar Panahi’s latest (much, much greater film) Taxi as actors in that film confess their performances to other characters who may very well be actors too. And, since McKay is not in the same league as the great Panahi in terms of artistic ambition, it begs the question why he chose this unconventional delivery for his filmic interpretation of the recent economic meltdown.
The film has received praise and criticism for one specific accomplishment that both critics and viewers have agreed upon: the very deliberate dumbing down of the complexities of the events that caused the housing market to crash and the ensuing financial crisis. Gosling’s character comments early on during his scene-setting prelude that if the audience is already confused by his terminology, it’s intentional: people on Wall Street want the American public to think only they can do their job, he asserts. It’s a scathing indictment of the type of people The Big Short lambastes, and it’s still only one of the film’s earliest and tamest. The remainder of McKay’s film is a parade of heartless idiots who are either too dumb to see the impending crash or too rich and insulated to care, or both. McKay’s intentions are clear. Nearly eight years on he’s still (righteously) angry with those responsible for the economic downturn who seem perfectly comfortable with the rest of America paying for their mistakes. The Big Short, then, is his attempt to set the record straight, point fingers in the right direction, and warn an unassuming public of this ever happening again. Furthermore, his aim is clearly to ensure that every single viewer – from the economist to the completely clueless – understands what happened.
His directorial decisions, then, become all the more clear. By allowing his characters to break character and by casting some of Hollywood’s most recognizable stars, McKay’s nearly begging us to see past this mere reenactment to get to the heart of what his film has to say. He even goes so far as to include three cheeky interludes featuring famous celebrities – Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain, and Selena Gomez – as themselves explaining complicated financial concepts in uncomplicated fashion. Robbie, while taking a bath, teaches us that “subprime” just means “shit,” Bourdain compares collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) to unwanted fish parts while cooking, and Gomez teams up with economist Richard Thaler to explain synthetic CDOs while playing blackjack. It’s a clever move, and its purpose is impossible to miss: Americans listen best when their favorite celebs are talking. Within the context of The Big Short, these interludes work, but self-aware condescension is still condescension.
For the most part, McKay keeps up this momentum, and his film is consistently entertaining as it over-explains the issues at its core, but in its final third he unfortunately kowtows to the pressures of Hollywoodization as the story devolves into sentimental melodrama. This is especially true of Steve Carell’s character’s narrative thread (which is too bad since he delivers the film’s best performance) as his growing heart of gold for humanity perfectly aligns with his repressed feelings of loss over his brother’s recent suicide. Too, the film unfortunately commits the same fault as Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air – another recent, hyper-relevant Hollywood take on the recession. Throwing in brief scenes of a misled stripper with five homes and bad loans and a tattooed tough-guy whose landlord isn’t paying the mortgage on the home he rents for his family doesn’t automatically make a movie sympathetic to those most affected by the economy tanking. McKay’s film still follows a group of men who profited (in the billions, I might add) from the market crashing. A heartfelt inner monologue from a reformed Christian Bale doesn’t help much either.
Though its back half diminishes some of the goodwill from its promising opening moments, The Big Short isn’t a complete failure. It certainly does un-complicate a very complicated issue. Thus, as a cautionary tale or as an unlikely big-budget, star-studded essay film, The Big Short is mostly a success. But, it’s at its least convincing as the piece of compelling narrative fiction that it needs to be to win awards at year’s end. It flails awkwardly as McKay attempts to swing between two very different registers, and the film’s at its worst when hitting its obligatory dramatic cues.