When I was a freshman in college, one of the guys in my dorm (the same guy who thought we should have an absurdist band where I just spent the whole show sitting in a trash can) suggested that we establish a sort of salon: several guys would attend, wearing smoking jackets and sipping brandy. Each session, one of us would present an intellectual address to be enjoyed by the rest of the members as well as by one or two invited women — highly attractive women, of course, dressed to the nines.
Our Sleeper Hall salon never became a reality, but now we have a reasonable approximation: The Big Short, playing in a theater near you.
The Big Short is an itchy feature that’s set on Wall Street just under a decade ago, when the house of cards that banks had built atop the mortgage market came crashing down, causing a worldwide financial calamity. The film’s flamboyantly eccentric protagonists, though, see it coming. These smartypants are based on actual traders and investors described in Michael Lewis’s 2010 nonfiction book of the same name.
This is one of those movies where you just want to refer to the characters by the names of the actors playing them, since every one is a recognizable star. There’s Ryan Gosling as Jared Vennett, a trader who convinces hedge fund manager Steve Carell — er, “Mark Baum” — that some of Wall Street’s best-rated investments are actually its worst, and that it would be wise to sell them short. There’s Christian Bale as heavy-metal fan Michael Burry, the leader of a capitol group who sees the same thing; and Brad Pitt as Ben Rickert, a retired investor who still has plenty of capitol to whip out when he needs to.
The challenge of making a movie about the housing crisis, director/co-writer Adam McKay (the Anchorman director, making his first Ferrell-free film) clearly realized, was that communicating the reasons for the market collapse required explaining the esoteric “financial products” that created illusory wealth. Never fear, McKay has a fourth wall he’s not afraid to break — as well as Anthony Bourdain in a kitchen and Selena Gomez at a blackjack table, playing themselves in little skits that illustrate particular principles of 21st century finance.
McKay does a solid job of explaining the basic forces behind the market collapse. He even has Carell et al descend to ground level with fact-finding trips that reveal a stripper who owns five homes because banks just keep letting her buy them, empty houses in a subdivision where new construction has been ominously halted, and a working dad who’s paying his rent — to a landlord who’s not paying the mortgage.
Therein lies the rub. The housing collapse was a vast phenomenon that affected all of us in some way, and that resulted in excruciating personal and professional losses across America. It was built on greed, racism, and willful ignorance. There are a million ways to tell this story — but The Big Short chooses to focus on a few clever white guys who were among the first on Wall Street to spot the danger, capitalized on it, and felt a little crappy about that.
The Big Short will remind many viewers of 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street, but that film worked on its own terms because director Martin Scorsese embraced Leonardo DiCaprio’s character as a true antihero: a trader whose soul is eaten away even as his bottom line soars. McKay is nicer to his characters — to a fault.
There’s a potentially interesting moral dilemma for these characters: their investments amount to calling bullshit on a system that’s putting millions of Americans at grave risk, but those investments are also, well, investments, and the men (there were women involved IRL, but we only see the men onscreen) stand to become very rich if their bet against the economy turns out to be right.
McKay’s wildly fluctuating tone makes it hard to find the center of this story, as does his decision to focus on several groups of similar characters — when just one would have done the job. More damning, though, is his treatment of all the people who aren’t these several clever white men.
The people who were issued bad mortgages and lost their homes — disproportionately working-class people of color, as The Big Short alludes in a couple of quick montages — are almost entirely off-camera, condescended to as ignorant and vulnerable sheep. That doubtless reflects exactly the way these homeowners were regarded in many Wall Street offices, but again we get back to the fact that this movie centers on a bunch of movie-star white dudes who are portrayed as the lone voices of reason.
Having stacked his deck with A-list middle-aged bros in big showy roles, McKay deals them out to shake their heads dumbfoundedly at a legion of selfish, short-sighted supporting characters who include some other white guys, sure (notably, Max Greenfield of New Girl), but also the movie’s only remotely prominent women and people of color. Confused about what’s going on? Don’t worry, here’s Margot Robbie, naked in a hot tub, to explain everything!
In the end, the whole production amounts to an ugly spectacle. By the time the far-seeing Big Shorters were literally screaming at a visually-impaired woman being portrayed as a comically pathetic pawn of the corrupt bond-rating industry, my girlfriend made her own short sale: she got up and walked out of the movie.
“I’ll meet you at the bar,” she said. “This is bullshit.”