Wrapping up 2015: The Big Short
I watched The Big Short about 12 hours after I watched Ex Machina. Ever in search of patterns, I looked within this time. Here was a film I enjoyed easily with only a few hiccups. Ex Machina left me exasperated as often as it had me hypnotized. And yet, if pressed to arbitrarily pick one (because hey, sometimes movie watching choices come down to that) I’d likely recommend Ex Machina over The Big Short, despite my numerous frustrations with the former. What gives?
Well, think of it this way: Ex Machina is a film of significant ambition that couldn’t quite figure put its pieces together perfectly. The whole assembly is a bit of a mess, but from certain angles it’s astonishing. The Big Short is much easier to appreciate at first. Its edges are sharp and its surfaces polished. But no particular angle makes me stop and gasp. It’s not particularly more than the sum of its parts either. Its aims are obvious, less starry-eyed than Ex Machina. It is an entertaining story of several men who predicted an impending economic collapse that just about no one else in the world saw coming. It delivers the goods, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
To be fair, in delivering those goods, director/writer Adam McKay and writer Charles Randolph have to work around some serious inside baseball. The Big Short is laden with financial jargon that made me appreciate how Moneyball must have read to people who knew as little about baseball as I do about investing. To explain some of the more important, inscrutable terms, the film regularly breaks the fourth wall. A string of celebrity cameos (including
Malin Akerman Margot Robbie in a bathtub, Anthony Bourdain preparing fish stew, and Selena Gomez playing blackjack) explain mortgage bonds and CDOs in layman’s terms. These moments are actually quite helpful, considering how much understanding at least the gist of the subprime mortgage crisis is necessary to follow the story. But the movie overplays this hand; characters regularly stop mid-scene to deliver monologues into the camera, often to let us in on details that could easily have been provided without interrupting the scene, or that add nothing to the narrative but a wink. It becomes repetitive to the point of monotony; moments like when a character admits that a scene that played out didn’t really happen are too clever by half. Breaking the fourth wall is best used as flavoring, not a course.
Still, The Big Short is far more energetic than not. It’s aided by a set of three lead performances that aim all over the comic spectrum and land on both feet. Christian Bale provides most of the movie’s pulse as Michael Burry, a hedge fund manager whose relentless attention to detail lets him see, as clearly as if he’s reading Cliff’s Notes, that the US housing market is doomed to collapse within two years. Burry is single-minded but not unfriendly; he spends days in his office working, reading every word of every detail he can find about the housing market He bets more than $1 billion shorting the housing market, making his clients apoplectic. When confronted, he presents his findings matter-of-factly; they aren’t debatable, he says. Housing will collapse. His boss looks at him like he’s speaking in tongues.
Elsewhere, Trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) hears about Burry’s work and does some digging himself. Dollar signs in his eyes, he goes looking for business partners to short the housing market with; he’s laughed out of room after room, only finding a willing ear in hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carrell). Baum is in this profession for god knows what reasons; he despises the banks and seemingly anyone who makes any money from them. He’s open to Vennett primarily because he is so unsurprised that bankers would run a sure like housing unto the ground.
Ryan Gosling is one of the few actors who could make Vennett’s unapologetic profiteering work. His character isn’t likable, but he’s so open in his motives and gobsmacked at this opportunity that so few other can see in front of him that his attitude becomes, against our best instincts, infectious. It’s in addressing the morality of profiting off of a worldwide catastrophe that The Big Short gets a bit muddled. This isn’t a film that needs a moral center, but it would help to have a consistent viewpoint. Aside from Vennett’s zeal for profit, there’s Burry’s straightforward practicality (he’s simply doing his job, basically) and Baum’s crisis of conscience (he almost gives up at the end rather than make money off of the misfortune of others). There’s an entire separate plotline involving two twenty-something investors (played by John Magaro and Fill Wittrock) who also cash in on the meltdown, aided by a banker-turned-hippie Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt). When they begin to celebrate, he chides them, spelling out statistically how many people will suffer as they’re raking in the money.The film’s coda is essentially a warning about how the banks are going to continue this cycle of pursuing profit at everyone’s expense. It’s a worthwhile message, but it doesn’t feel at one with the film that preceded it.
These characters aren’t the cause of the crisis, of course, but The Big Short seems less than eager to explore the moral conflicts it raises. It uses broad strokes (at one point Carrell literally says “this makes me no better than them” before reluctantly cashing in) or glib winks (when Gosling speaks to the camera one last time to rub in how happy he is with his success, regardless of what we think of him). In not engaging with its characters beyond their place as the pieces in an inherently interesting story, The Big Short limits its scope and narrative impact. I don’t blame McKay. He tells a fascinating tale with a lot of humor and energy. I learned a lot about a subject I might never have otherwise. The film does good work simply in educating a wide audience on a subject we all really ought to know about. This isn’t a frustrating film. But my frustrations with Ex Machina came from a place of love for what it did well and a desire to see more of that. The Big Short goes down easy, but it never compelled me to want more.