This is probably the first time I’ve nearly watched all of the best picture nominees before they were even announced. The only exception was The Big Short. Luckily, it would play at our theatre a few days after the announcement. Ironic how the last film I’d see is the first nominee I review. Speaking of which, I’d better get started.
Known for writing and directing some of Will Ferrell’s most famous comedies (Anchorman, Talladega Nights), Adam McKay seems the least likely person to do a biopic about the housing bubble. But his showed a hint of interest via the end credits of the Other Guys. As he would state in an interview with Elvis Mitchell, He wanted the film to be about the crisis, but felt the message got lost in the broad comedy. So, McKay decided to dive head on into the issue of Wall Street Corruption in The Big Short, an underdog story of the few outsiders who not only predicted the recession, but banked on the collapse.
The first person to predict the collapse was Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), hedge fund manager. A master of numbers, Burry looks over the housing market and finds it build on unstable subprime funds. But due to his social awkwardness, khaki shorts and sandals, Burry isn’t taken seriously by his supervisors. So he decides to “short” the market by convincing investment organizations to sell him credit default swaps against the housing market.
This modern day Cassandra publishes his findings on business journals, where some investors finally believe him. Among them is smooth operator Jared Varrett (Ryan Gosling), who teams up with loudmouth moral crusader Mark Baum (Steve Carell) to short the market as well. The third group is an up and coming garage investment organization led by Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock). They enlist the help of hypochondriac reclusive Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to short the market. Everyone else prefers to bury their heads in the sand than listen to any of them. But then the 2008 financial crisis came and they made big bucks.
I love how these three groups never meet at any point of the film. Most writers would put all the characters together, even if they never meet in real life. Instead, each group has their own private story to tell. It reminds me of The Right Stuff, where the film splits between Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier and the first Americans to travel through space. This technique shows how one guy influences a group without ever meeting them.
McKay gambles further with the storytelling style. After watching web series Frame By Frame’s episode on Martin Scorsese, I noticed similarities between The Big Short and Goodfellas. As the show demonstrates, Scorsese contrasts the styles of neorealism and postmodernism to create juxtaposition, and so did this movie. The former involves making a scene as real as possible by using real locations to having actors improvise dialogue. In a lot of scenes with the actors, we hear them talk over each other, not finish sentences and occasionally mumble.
The later involves heightened reality, making the viewer more aware it’s a movie. With Varrett as head narrator, characters will break the fourth wall to point out inaccuracies to real life. There are even moments when the film will stop and have Anthony Bourdain or Selena Gomez describe complicated financial terms. This stylization may put some off, but you have to admire the experimentation.
Though the film plays as a farce, the Big Short never steers away from the dark side of this underdog story. Just when we keep rooting for these guys to succeed, Rickert reminds his team (and the audience) that they were betting against the American Economy. And when they were proven right, the film doesn’t feel triumph but conflicted guilt. Yes, they made millions, but the rest of the country is now in poverty. Somehow, McKay makes this bittersweet ending fit with the farcical strike at the human greed that nearly ruined the economy. The film angers as it reveals the incompetence and indifference that dragged everyone into the ground. Though the heroes profited off other people’s bankruptcy, one can argue that’s the price the world paid for not listening to them. But what about the working class who lost everything?