Adam McKay’s films have always had a strong anti-capitalist sentiment. Step Brothers makes an interesting case for how consumer culture makes us compete like children; The Other Guys is as much a buddy-cop comedy as an underdog story of valuing the ‘little man’ and staying true to oneself in an economic rat-race; Anchorman is a clever takedown of media organisations putting business interests ahead of the public good. It’s a pity that McKay hasn’t got enough credit for incorporating these subversive elements in his films and what has largely stayed in the public consciousness from his past work is the penchant for over-the-top comedy of his SNL days.
Thankfully, The Big Short is a response to the misunderstanding. It’s the most focused film from McKay so far and the decision to finally put the sociopolitical commentary in the spotlight truly enhances the impact of the narrative. Many have been pleasantly surprised that this is a film that’s very “unlike” McKay. However, if you examine his filmography closely, you’ll notice that McKay has just made a simple switch: now the sociopolitical dimension finds itself firmly in the front seat with comedy playing second fiddle. In The Big Short, this simple shift in focus does wonders and the end result is a more thoroughly compelling anti-capitalist narrative than a Bernie Sanders public address or Slavoj Zizek lamenting that an inherent loneliness is a feature of post-modern life.
Based on the bestseller by Michael Lewis, the film’s narrative begins in 2005 and can is divvied up into three different storylines. There is Dr Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a hedge fund manager who realises that the current housing market is bound to collapse. The second narrative features closet idealist and hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carrell), who gets wind of dishonest credit ratings and the scale of fraud prevalent in loan sanctions and works with trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) to get back at Wall Street and its toxic culture. The third is about young guns Charlie (John Magaro) and Jamie (Finn Wittrock), who want a stake at the “big boys table” of Wall Street. They find out Vennett’s plans and, with the help of retired, reclusive and paranoid banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), make trades to also short the housing market.
It would be extremely egregious to label The Big Short as merely a “Global Financial Crisis” movie and think of it in the same breath as films like Margin Call. The scope here is much larger. Take the case of its use of celebrities like Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez to explain seemingly complex economic jargon in layman’s terms through short and snappy cutaway segments. Yes, it is absurdly funny to see Robbie explain the housing crisis bubble in a segue way that manifests into a bath commercial. Yes, it subconsciously makes us self-conscious that we’ll pay attention to anything if it comes from the mouth of a celebrity; or rather, we’ll only pay attention to something if it comes from the mouth of a celebrity. But by the time you get to Selena Gomez explaining the massive danger of CDOs using basic probability theory, you realise that the point of all this is not to get a few cheap laughs.
The larger sociopolitical point of The Big Short revolves around that of collective social responsibility. The radical message of the film is one about surviving in a consumer driven, individualistic culture. The attitude that feeds your inner can’t-be-bothered self is extremely dangerous. If we, as responsible citizens, do not invest ourselves in policies that affect us and keep the corporations and our governments honest, then we’ll always be taken for a ride. Wall Street may be a corrupt, greedy and fraudulent enterprise but that is not the bigger problem. The problem is us, because we just don’t care. As citizens, we shirk our responsibility by blaming the government or worse, the “system” and then sit back and complain.
Don’t get me wrong: The Big Short has plenty of self-reflexive jokes and moments where characters expunge witty quips by breaking the fourth wall, but I didn’t see it as a funny film. It’s clearly not. I mean this in the most positive sense. It’s a disaster movie – where the impending and continuous boom-bust cycle of capitalism is the oncoming disaster, we are all caught-up in it and there’s no way to escape it because we just can’t be bothered.
Hank Corwin has done a truly exceptional job in the editing room; in spite of its 130-minute runtime this is a fast-paced and expertly cut narrative. Its use of title cards is likewise impressive: the dread on your face when you read the text on the final title card and realise that there have been no lessons learnt is the perfect note to strike with the denouement. Barry Ackroyd’s sharp cinematography compliments the pace of the narrative. The score, by Nicholas Britell, is also worth mentioning: it’s surprisingly poignant, especially during the sombre moments late in the film.
The performances, though, are where the film was let down. Carrell and Bale are too overt and two-dimensional in their portrayals of Burry and Baum, Gosling felt miscast in the role of the bank trader Vennett. It was Pitt’s remarkably understated turn as the reclusive and paranoid Rickerts that impressed me most. The film also tries a little too hard to incorporate a more human sensibility, particularly in the backstory of Baum’s personal tragedy. Later on, the moments where the film illustrates the impact of the collapse of the housing market on actual people also feels rushed and fails to strike the right note.
Despite these issues, though, The Big Short ends up as a strong and reflective contemplation on the Global Financial Crisis and its wide-ranging after-effects. Its sociopolitical commentary is an effective and refreshing meditation on a post-modern, capitalist culture which might reward you with plenty of social and monetary capital but seems to offer little personal worth.
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