By Harlan Jacobson in the January-February 2016 Issue
Adapting Michael Lewis’s 2010 book about the subprime mortgage meltdown of 2007-08, Adam McKay has gone where no other comedy director has gone before: Credit Default Swaps and Collateralized Debt Obligations for Dummies. Without Lewis’s taking 266 pages to parse synthetic CDO whatevers, no filmmaker would’ve understood what happened to the country any better than John Ford did in 1940 with Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath: a great call to unionize after all the little people are blown out of their homes like so much dust.
The man responsible for Anchorman and Stepbrothers is an unlikely choice for this project, but the piece needs a bad-boy sensibility. McKay’s sense of humor here is WTF. In a year of runaway direct address (Experimenter, The Martian, The Walk), he blows a Second City–style hole through the screen: Margot Robbie in a bubble bath explains mortgage backed bonds, Anthony Bourdain likens bad mortgage tranches to recycled fish, and Selena Gomez at a craps table with a world-class economist places side bets on everyone else’s side bets on how fast the nation’s mortgages crap out. McKay takes the device Woody invented with Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall, and dynamites the fourth wall altogether.
The Big Short is the truth-telling picture of the year. It puts beautifully shaded characters in guy comedy mode into an Altman-esque narrative, shot counter to type by Ken Loach’s cinematographer, Barry Ackroyd. As a morally complex piece, it’s light years beyond Spotlight, a paint-by-numbers template stolen from All the President’s Men that rewards its audience with a multiplex-friendly victory. Go long on Spotlight, headed to the Oscars. Maybe short The Big Short, which will likely have failed to find an audience in week two.
In Brad Pitt, Lewis has found both a champion behind the camera (as producer) and an on-screen alter ego, more successfully here than in Moneyball. Lewis popularizes better than anyone the rise of the digital-age math geek. Our social and cultural conditions have changed since Heaven’s Gate buried the antihero and Star Wars brought the swashbuckling hero back in from the cold. Thirty years of Reagan knockoffs, deregulation, and a near financial collapse foreseen only by Lewis’s canaries in the coal mine and we’ve come full circle back to the antihero. The irony here is that they’re Wall Street guys. As in The Martian, those who run the numbers make stepping into the void the sane alternative.
The Big Short’s characters are all marginalized by what they see, or put another way, by what they cannot deny seeing, however inconvenient. They each get the picture, an unlikely claque of Chicken Littles who happen to be right this time. In disparate corners of the financial world these geeks peeled apart the gobbledygook that passed for AAA-rated tranches of mortgage-backed securities—the financial instruments sold by young emperors in $4,000 suits but still as naked as the strippers who bought five investment properties on tips. This is a Wall Street that is made up of believable characters, with a few name changes from the book that seem more like a courtesy before it ever got to Legal. Taken together, the traders who are in on the trade of a lifetime—played by Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, Finn Wittrock, John Magaro, Pitt, and Christian Bale, whose time at the Oscars has come—are the composite Lewis antihero, feeding on the gross indignation that McKay brings to the screen with a smart-aleck sense of humor.
Has anyone ever liked the money guys? Jesus threw them out of the temple. Shakespeare made his a Jew. Adam Smith had the most respect and created an invisible hand in the sky to explain market forces. Fitzgerald made Gatsby a fallen angel from the Midwest. The Big Short strips the bark off the argot and coheres around people who just see what’s plain to see: the numbers tell the story. They are the truth. Anything else is Kool-Aid.