A Neoliberal critique for the Anchorman generation
Review By Tim Leibbrandt
Director/screenwriter Adam McKay really had his work cut out for him with The Big Short, unenviably tasked with making a film pulled between a number of dichotomies work.
An adaption of Michael Lewis’ 2010 book of the same name, The Big Short is tied to actual events and individuals and thus needed to be an accurate depiction of an impenetrable muck of high finance concepts.
It also somehow needed to be entertaining.
It deals with the human toll of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, yet it also aims to be a comedy.
It is critical of greedy investment banks, ratings agencies and hedge funds, but the protagonists themselves are traders aiming to make a quick profit.
Surprisingly, The Big Short shrewdly uses these contradictions to its advantage.
The story begins with eccentric hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale) predicting that a crash in the US housing market is inevitable. In his view, the rampant investment in bundled mortgage bonds and car, home and credit card loans (referred to as ‘collateralized debt obligations’ or CDOs) is reckless. He sees them as high-risk investments likely to default and intends to prove a point (and simultaneously garner profit for his hedge fund) by betting against them. To do this, he visits a number of banks and purchases credit default swaps against these CDOs; should they tank he collects the insurance pay-out on them. The banks of course are all too happy to oblige, still viewing the US housing market as infallible.
Trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) hears of Burry’s actions and decides to follow suit. When he misdials and accidentally contacts the offices of a hedge fund managed by Mark Baum (Steve Carell), Baum and his team are persuaded to join him. At the same time, former banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) is pulled out of retirement by two wannabe high roller traders (played by John Magaro and Finn Wittrock) in order to help them purchase their own credit default swaps and make a name for themselves.
All three teams are convinced that something is rotten in the state of Wall Street and aim to shine a light on this; while making a ton of cash.
The fact that this all sounds complicated and full of jargon is intentional and points towards The Big Short’s greatest strength.
One of the core ideas of the film is that it is the inaccessibility and opacity of banking language which has allowed the banks, brokers and ratings agencies to persist in their reckless behaviour.
By packaging everything in obtuse, impenetrable terminology, the average person’s attention span goes out the window.
Fully aware that the success of The Big Short as a cautionary tale rests upon its ability to demystify its subject matter, Adam McKay incorporated the irreverent humour of his previous films like Anchorman to make the absurdly convoluted banking jargon accessible.
McKay is sincere in his intention and the unexpected diversions from the central drama into 4th wall-breaking humour and celebrity cameos are extremely effective in making the subject matter as clear as humanly possible.
Early on in the film for instance, the audience is instructed to replace “subprime” with “shit” whenever a character refers to subprime loans. It is small gestures like these which keep one engaged with the technical side of the film’s concerns.
The Big Short never allows itself to become overwhelming and wherever possible, visual metaphors such as a Jenga set are slyly incorporated into the action to make the concepts clear.
Of course the humour also has the dual effect of making a film about a bunch of traders trying to get rich quick watchable.
In this respect credit must also be given to the ensemble cast, who manage to flesh out their characters with enough quirks and idiosyncrasies that the film escapes being populated with nothing but Bud Fox characters.
You do actually empathise with the anguish of Bale, Carell and Pitt’s characters in particular as the corrupt investment sect keeps moving the goal posts to save its own skin.
Of the principle cast, Carell’s Baum is the most sympathetic and human (even if he would be exceptionally frustrating as an actual acquaintance). His growing sense of indignation, outrage and despair as it becomes apparent just how rotten the entire system is parallels that of the viewer.
To an extent the general American public who enabled the crash by accepting increasingly shady and reckless loan options are given a bit of a free pass by the film.
The implication is that they were hapless victims duped by the brokers who continued to offer them financing options towards dream homes which they would obviously be unable to honour.
This is a trope consistent with films like Oliver Stone’s Wall Street and Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf on Wall Street and accounts for how the film gets around the fact that its main characters are profiting off the public’s misfortune.
They are not directly exploiting the everyperson like Jordan Belfort or Gordon Gekko, but are instead placing a spotlight on those that are.
It’s not entirely persuasive and at the end of the day, only Magaro and Wittrock’s characters – unsuccessfully pursuing legal action against the insidious ratings companies -make any concerted effort to use their newfound wealth to try to help those who lost everything in the financial crisis.
McKay is not unaware of this and uses the lack of retribution as a means of instilling anger in the audience.
The culmination of the film’s incongruous threads is a masterfully acerbic climax which emphasises the contention that the depicted events did not take place in a bubble and are still very much relevant to the present.
By driving these points home through black humour, The Big Short cements its intentions to raise awareness and generate conversation about the persistence of these neoliberal structures in the present.
Through expertly balancing a number of contradictory pulls, The Big Short manages to beat the odds and effectively function simultaneously as comedy, cautionary tale and crash course.
Interestingly, the film also prompts a reconsideration of the social conscience in Mckay’s prior films.
Perhaps the critique of US media in Anchorman was intended as more than just a vehicle for eminently-quotable dick jokes.