Part of the problem with the year-end push for awards season is that so many movies of good to excellent quality come out in a short time frame. Sometimes great work gets overlooked in a barrage of quality. Upon my second viewing of Adam McKay’s The Big Short, which is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD, I realized that I severely undervalued this story about the investors that knew the economy was on the brink of collapse. The film is remarkably vital as we approach an election and questions swirl about the power and influence that Wall Street yields over politicians. Not only is it important, it’s remarkably entertaining as McKay breaks down the Orwellian language that Wall Street employs to obfuscate what they’re actually doing.
That ability to cut through the bullshit of Wall Street with a hot knife is what earned McKay and his co-writer Charles Randolph the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. The duo took the non-fiction book by Michael Lewis and turned it into infuriating entertainment. Even if Adam McKay weren’t open about his political beliefs, it would be quite easy to see from watching The Big Short that the writer-director is an ardent supporter of Bernie Sanders.
The Big Short is the story of a few groups of investors that realized the housing bubble was inflated with loans that would default. When these loans default, the entire financial system and the housing market will collapse. This information was first uncovered by Dr. Michael Barry (Christian Bale in an Oscar nominated performance), a former M.D. who found success by investing in areas of the stock market that undervalued. Barry decides to short, a term for bet against, the housing market and upon its collapse stands to make a fortune. Other investors including Mark Baum (Steve Carrell) and Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) get wind of this information and also want to short the housing market. Eventually, a couple of young investors (played by John Magaro and Finn Wittrock) also decide to bet against the system with the help of their mentor Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt).
The loans that these investors are betting against have a date built in that will trigger the financial Armageddon, only the institutions issuing these faulty loans aren’t the only ones that are corrupt. The ratings agencies and other banks have rigged the system in an attempt to delay the inevitable, which causes serious professional problems for the different groups of investors. The corrupt institutions of The Big Short see themselves as “too big to fail,” and approach any attempts to call them out on their malfeasance with arrogance and a crooked smile. As noted elsewhere, these institutions are comprised primarily of white men, a deliberate casting choice from McKay which properly highlights the lacking diversity among the boardrooms of the big banks and brokers.
There’s a lot of indignation pointed towards the financial sector in The Big Short, and McKay allows Carrell’s Mark Baum to be the mouthpiece for that. All of that indignation is righteous. The regulations that were supposed to prevent the collapse of ’08 were decimated by years of deregulation. Those very institutions that laid waste to the economy and destroyed the lives of millions were bailed out, and have used their resources to prevent any further regulation in the wake of the disaster.
The great power of The Big Short lies in its ability to simplify the jargon that Wall Street hides behind. If you ask the average person on the street about mortgage backed securities or collateral debt obligations, you’d likely be received with a lot of stammering and head scratching. If you asked someone on Wall Street about those things, they’d greet you more impenetrable language to make their work seem more difficult. But Adam McKay won’t allow his story to be blocked by these forms of doublespeak. The mysteries and history of Wall Street’s shady dealings lose their layers of mystique when their clearly explained by Margot Robbie in a bathtub, Anthony Bourdain making a fish stew, or Selena Gomez playing blackjack in Vegas. Suddenly, these aspects of the financial markets don’t seem so intimidating, losing the last remaining aspect of their power – their ability to confuse the common man.
Among the special features on the Blu-Ray of The Big Short are a number of featurettes focusing on the cast and crew of the film, especially the involvement of Adam McKay. Sadly, though, there’s no audio commentary track for the film, which would’ve been quite illuminating about a number of decisions that McKay makes in the film. These little featurettes do piece together just how difficult it was to get this film off the ground and just how much of a chance the producers, including Brad Pitt, took a chance on McKay as director considering the filmmaker is typically associated with comedies starring Will Ferrell.
For decades, Wall Street has operated with impunity in its shady dealing and lobbying for deregulation. Even when the shit hit the fan and the world’s economy was left in ruins, they’ve been the biggest agents fighting against any kind of change to rein in their reckless ways, opting to issue themselves large bonuses as a reward for their immense failures. Nobody went to jail for their complicit role in leveling the economy, they just got more bonuses. You don’t have to be a die-hard liberal carrying the torch for Bernie Sanders to see the importance of The Big Short. Like the ascent of Bernie Sanders, The Big Short is part of changing tide of unrest directed at the arrogant institutions that have a stranglehold on our society. It truly doesn’t matter which political party you belong to or your own economic philosophy to see that The Big Short is a cinematic call to urgency, a rallying cry against the shadowy forces of finance. Even though I gave The Big Short a rave review upon its initial release, I can’t help but feel that I undervalued this movie. The Big Short is a movie about 2007 for 2016, one that is funny and infuriating. It is also a tragedy as nothing much has changed since the house of cards crumbled under the weight of its own bullshit. Adam McKay has had enough of the bullshit and is ready to cut right through it. Thankfully, he’s cutting right through it with a great and important movie.