Directed by: Adam McKay
Premise: Based on the nonfiction book by Michael Lewis. Three groups of financial speculators realize that the US housing market is on the verge of collapse and they take advantage of Wall Street’s greed and corruption, betting against the major banks and the American economy.
What Works: Since the 2008 financial crash there has emerged an entire genre of “recession cinema,” movies that tell stories of life in light of Wall Street’s financial malfeasance. The most frequent kind of movie in recession cinema has been the executive drama, movies that take place in the upper echelons of financial and political power such as Too Big to Fail and The Wolf of Wall Street. The Big Short is yet another executive drama and it is one of the best films in the genre of recession cinema. Several things distinguish this particular title. Among the film’s most impressive qualities is the way that it makes complicated concepts accessible to a mainstream audience. Subprime mortgages and the credit default swap market were complex systems and before the 2008 crash they attracted little attention from mainstream news organizations precisely because that complexity didn’t make for good television. That’s the challenge before the makers of The Big Short and they find ways to make the concepts understandable, mostly through pauses in the action in which the characters break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience and cut-ins in which celebrities like Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdain lay out the exposition through a metaphor. That leads to the next distinction of The Big Short; it’s very funny. However, its comedy is a witty gallows humor and the film picks up on the absurdity of the situation, making the most enraging revelations of this story much more bearable. The comedy also serves a subversive end. The humor of the movie and its irreverent attitude puts the audience in touch with the excitement of trading and financial success. As the characters go about their plans we are on their side and moviemakers play up the satisfaction we feel in watching an underdog outwit the establishment. But the end of the movie kills that buzz with a downbeat conclusion. Our heroes are proven right and ultimately get what they want but they also realize the cost was paid by the whole economy, not just the banks, making their victory bittersweet. And that’s another of the outstanding things about The Big Short; it’s one of the few executive dramas in recession cinema that grasps the consequences of the 2008 crash for regular people.
What Doesn’t: For the most part the filmmakers of The Big Short do an excellent job of making complicated financial concepts accessible to the audience. The exception is the film’s ending. When the 2008 crash finally gets underway there are a lot of things happening that aren’t explained as clearly as the economic machinations occurring earlier in the film. It’s decipherable but since the filmmakers spell out these matters in the first half of the movie it is disorienting when they don’t do that in the ending. The other caveat of The Big Short is the film’s regard for women. There are only a handful of females with speaking roles in the entire picture and most of them are marginalized, like the housewife played by Marisa Tomei, or made to look foolish as in the stripper played by Heighlen Boyd. The movie doesn’t go out of its way to be misogynistic; the central cast has a Revenge of the Nerds-like character that separates them from the bro culture of Wall Street and the cameo by Margot Robbie is played with brilliant self-awareness. But for a story that takes place over a long period of time and involves a lot of characters there is a dearth of women in the cast.
Bottom Line: The Big Short is among the best films about the 2008 financial crisis. It makes complex ideas manageable while telling a story that will have the audience laughing through their tears.
Episode: #577 (January 10, 2016)