The Big Short

The Big Short will go down in history with movies like The Big Sleep, The Big Chill, and Big, as a great movie with the word “big” in the title, the plot of which remains largely ambiguous until you actually watch it.

Jokes! Anyway. To say The Big Short is wonderful and heartbreaking would be inaccurate, so I won’t say that. The Big Short is… complex. At times it’s satirical, and therefore hilariously funny. At other times, it’s painfully real, and therefore deeply disturbing. It’s a movie that I wish could represent American movies at an international competi– oh wait, I guess it is nominated for a few Oscars. Whatever, that’s not exactly what I mean. What I mean is, The Big Short is American in its humor and drama whilst also skewering the worst things about America. It gets the best things right and the worst things even righter.

The thing is, I didn’t understand all of it. “Finance” is not a topic with which I’m familiar, nor do I really choose to be, so a good deal of it went over my head, and my friend who watched the movie with me did his best to explain it to me without mansplaining it to me. (He did well.) But Adam McKay and Charles Randolph (and Michael Lewis, the original author) anticipated this eye-glazing-over effect of the heart of the film and countered it by [1] interspersing the film with transparent, plot-adjacent celebrity cameo buzzword explanations from the likes of Selena Gomez, Margot Robbie and Anthony Bourdain and [2] making the plot portion of the film as crystal clear as possible. The mere fact that the film was a little confusing underscores the point of it all, anyway — millions of people got duped by bunk terminology and malicious billionaires and were too ashamed/ignorant to ask questions/know better, and thus the housing crisis was born. See, right there, the perfect marriage of satire and reality.

Knowing that Adam McKay had his hands all over this movie — writing and directing — makes me very, very happy. This is Will Ferrell’s comedy and business partner, yes, but this is also a guy with a specific comedic vision that clearly digs deeper than the bro comedies he’s had his hands all over before. I’m sure he’ll continue to make them because they’re what the people want, but I hope this cuts a clearer path between comedy and drama. The two really shouldn’t be so segregated, neither in front of nor behind the camera. The best works capture both well, and this movie is a prime example of it. The Big Short could have easily been over-wrought with sweeping music or a douchey, macho tone, but it wasn’t. It was played perfectly on the page and on the screen.

Well, one guy was over-wrought, but we all know who that is. Christian “The Actor” Bale, of course, who makes everything about Acting, even when it is not about Acting. As Michael Burry, the hedge funder who was one of the first to uncover the actual Short, he made every scene about himself, which is what he always does. I can’t stand it. He wasn’t bad, he was just… Bale. Whatever. Everyone else was superb, somehow towing the line between egotistical maniac and cog in the machine and hopeless human. I particularly loved Steve Carell as another hedge funder who also uncovers the Short around the same time, Mark Baum — who, by the way, started out as a special variant of egotistical maniac, but grew and morphed over the course of the crisis into an extremely sympathetic guy. And Brad Pitt brought out his nerdy side to play Ben Rickert, a reclusive ex-banker who helps two young guns get involved in the game, too. You’ve also got Ryan Gosling, Max Greenfield, Marisa Tomei, Hamish Linklater, and a slough of other (white) people populating the high-stress, high-stakes, absurd world of banking and making it nauseatingly, overwhelmingly believable. (And yes, in my world, “believable” means “speaking Sorkinese.”)

By the time the proverbial levee broke, and the devastation of the late-2000’s housing/banking/financial crisis washed over me at the end of the movie, I had laughed a great deal more than I expected to, but not so much that I didn’t feel the crushing blow. Hearing this absolutely perfect song over the credits mollified the feeling a little, though.

The movie is constructed in such a way that, even though you know what’s coming because you’ve sat in the theater for 90 minutes and you were alive when it happened, it still hits you. I’m thankful I was too focused on getting through college, and had the luxury to focus on it, even if it prolonged my naïveté. I’m thankful that it’s a cautionary tale for me, too. It’s the kind of problem that sucks you in, drags you down, and piles on the trauma — and it did so to millions of people. Let’s not do it again.