On the stage of the last Democratic debate, Hillary and Bernie got to talking about the 2008 economic recession, as they are prone to do. Now I’ve seen my fair share of these debates, and my brain prepared for an onslaught of numbers and tax systems I didn’t understand. But for once, their words didn’t just melt off into meaninglessness. The Big Short had succeeded.
Based on a book by Michael Lewis (The Blind Side, Moneyball), The Big Short explains how banks morphed an initially stable mortgage-based loaning system into an unstable one, didn’t notice (or did but didn’t care), and then brought the economy crashing down. But ignore whatever sounded boring in that sentence and focus on the kind of action that a word like “crashing” carries. Because that’s what director Adam McKay did.
The cast is star-studded, the soundtrack oozes mid-two-thousands cool and the dialogue is snarky. Initially, The Big Short looks like it’s going to be another Wolf of Wall Street. Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) is a suave banker who teams up with Mark Baum (Steve Carell), a cranky loudmouth. And yes, there is alcohol and there are strip clubs.
Still, these guys aren’t trying to hide from the FBI. They aren’t doing anything illegal by being the first to notice that the housing market isn’t as stable as it seems, but they aren’t really heroes either. Everybody in the movie, and in the audience, knows that the recession is inevitable. By the end, The Big Short is more like Argo except that the main characters get all of the exhaustion that comes from saving diplomats without actually saving anyone. So, the movie isn’t trying to be preachy or motivate you to sign a petition. It does, however, want you to be educated.
Whenever the script gets full of banking terms, the characters break the fourth wall and explain them to the audience. Usually, these explanations involve celebrity guest appearances and definitions (not your average Merriam-Webster’s kind) that appear at the bottom of the screen. The film is so eager to make sure you care about stuff like collateralized debt obligations that it does everything it can to “sex up” the economic points of the film.
This occasionally results in the blatant objectification of women, but at least instead of doing it to sell a product, they’re trying to teach you about Wall Street. In fact, the scenes are desperately unapologetic, almost implying that if you, the ignorant viewer, had kept a better eye on the economy, the movie wouldn’t have to make gratuitous use of female bodies.
Sometimes mixed in with the glamour of Wall Street life are stills and videos of the consequences of the increasing instability of the mortgage-based loan packages. Unpaid bills, abandoned houses and crying families flash by to remind viewers of what it means for the protagonists to win their bet against the housing market. But once they do win, the pacing of the movie slows down for the final twenty minutes or so. All of the wacky Hollywood stars let themselves relive the 2008 crisis, but now they have the knowledge to understand the stupidity-backed fraud that let it happen. And the audience does too.
If you wonder why everyone seems to hate Wall Street, are genuinely curious about the causes of our 2008 recession or just want to make yourself angry/sad, The Big Short is there for you. The cast does a marvelous job of making each character memorable and unexpectedly comical. Thanks to the movie’s educational nature, you might even get inspired to catch the next financial crisis before it happens.