And most people fucking hate poetry.”
The above quote appears roughly midway through The Big Short, Adam McKay’s star-studded, irreverent take on 2008’s global financial crisis. It’s an effective encapsulation of a film that operates as the rare piece of ‘edutainment’ that’s both legitimately educational and entertaining while providing a self-reflexive reflection of the impossibility of ‘truth’ when making a film “based on a true story.”
The Big Short, you see, centres on a handful of investors – played by the likes of Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Brad Pitt and Ryan Gosling – who identified the perilous fragility of a market based on imperilled mortgage bonds and CDOs (“Collateralized Debt Obligations” – don’t worry, the film explains them handily, with help from Anthony Bourdain). They bet against the market and win – big – but not before uncovering the crippling corruption at the heart of an incredibly immoral system.
The best way to understand what the film’s trying to do is to think back to Leo’s monologues in The Wolf of Wall Street where he aborted an explanation of complex financial jargon midway through; imagine a film where he actually continued explaining, and you’re thinking of The Big Short (which has more than a few similarities to Scorsese’s masterpiece – lots of breaking of the fourth wall, deliberately-scattershot editing and even Margot Robbie in a bubble bath). It’s hard to make a great movie out of this sort of dense exploration of complex financial minutiae, but McKay does about the best job possible; as you might expect from the director of Anchorman, he earns more than a few laughs while providing a sufficiently-sombre consideration of our deeply troubling late capitalist economy (as more than a few people have noted, it’d make a great double feature with 99 Homes).
But back to that truth thing. Every biopic, every ‘true story’ ever filmed is, to some extent, fictionalised. Whether it’s imagined conversations that took place off the record, or total concoctions used to make a complex story more entertaining or easier to understand, the truth of such ‘true stories’ is invariably suspect. How much this really matters is debateable; collapsing real people together into one character might make sense to a screenwriter but prove deeply offensive to the real people involved, for example. What’s clever about The Big Short is how it foregrounds these distinct perspectives in its storytelling, never letting you forget that this is a fictionalised – and simplified – take on the real proceedings.
A lot of this is thanks to Ryan Gosling; he plays Jared Vennett, a smug banker and one of the first to recognise the precarious position the banking industry put itself in by relying on increasingly-dubious mortgages, but he also provides narration for the film. When we first meet him in person, he’s at a work party with his banking colleagues – but he’s quick to clarify to the camera that he wouldn’t hang out with these schmucks; he’s friends with models and celebrities and the like, see? On more than one occasion, he reassures us in voiceover that, plausible or not, the events depicted did really happen that way. Conversely, he confides in us that a scene where a pair of young investors (Finn Wittrock and John Magaro) stumble upon Vennett’s prospectus is a total invention. In other words, The Big Short pre-empts the inevitable accusations of inaccuracies by wearing them on its sleeve. Of course this is partly fiction – how else would you make an entertaining film about such dry subject matter?
The entertainment factor can largely be credited to McKay’s scattershot approach, which frequently borders on erratic, incoherent and silly without ever really being any of those things. You’re either going to love or hate Hank Corwin’s hyperactive editing style; I kinda dug it, especially when combined with the film’s restless sound design (shout outs to Nicholas Britell for including both The Polyphonic Spree’s cover of “Lithium” and the Nirvana original). Pathos is mainly provided by the cast, who each capably carry the inevitable realisation that they’re profiting from the misery of the marginalised. Carell has the biggest role, but the strength of his performance – think a more volatile, less personable Michael Scott – is somewhat sabotaged by an awkwardly-shoehorned tragic backstory.
The Big Short isn’t a great film, but I don’t think it was ever going to be. But it’s fun, it’s depressing, it’s educational, it’s full of terrible wigs – it’s a pretty good way to spend a couple hours.