by Scott Adlerberg
Over the weekend, I went to see The Big Short. I haven't read the Michael Lewis book, but the movie, directed by Adam McKay, written by Charles Randolph and McKay, I thoroughly enjoyed. The cast is excellent, the pace fast, and the writing funny and sharp. It's the last film anyone might have expected from the director of Step Brothers, Talladega Nights and the two Anchorman movies (all of which I like but, come on, we're talking about low comedy material and nothing with the heft of the 2008 global financial meltdown), but it turns out that Adam McKay's comedic approach is suited to the subject matter. Seems a little counter intuitive, but what better way to handle a saga that is crammed with greed, incompetence, and callousness? Without laughs - dark ones but they are laughs - you'd only want to scream in anger and maybe, just maybe, kill some of the movers and shakers behind the catastrophe. Anyway, we all know what happened in 2008 and we're still feeling the repercussions, so this is not a story that needs to go out of its way to stoke outrage. The earnest, heavy-handed approach would turn the movie into a slog. It might become something preachy. McKay and company take the opposite tack entirely, and while I was watching, I was reminded of a line I always loved from a Muriel Spark novel, Loitering with Intent, where her narrator says of a book she's writing: "Now I treated the story.....with a light and heartless hand, as is my way when I have to give a perfectly serious account of things." The Big Short follows this tonal strategy to a tee.
So the movie's fun. Very much so. But what's particularly curious, and instructive from a storytelling viewpoint, is how it works at creating viewer identification. The movie gets you to root for certain characters even though you know that if these characters are right, if they win so to speak, millions of other people will lose. And we're not talking about losing figuratively, like a loss of ideals or the loss of belief in a system. We're talking real loss, life-changing loss, the loss of jobs, savings, homes. The people who come out on the short end here are merely the millions the financial crisis touched. And yet...
As it's set up, the group of characters who pursue credit default swaps, counting on the housing market to collapse when nobody else believes such a thing possible, are the story's non-conformists. This endears them to the viewer. Christian Bale's character, Dr. Michael Burry, is socially maladroit but great with numbers, a guy who runs a hedge fund while barefoot and listening to death metal music in his office. Steve Carell's Mark Baum is neurotic but righteous; he and his small team are of the financial world but rail against its fraudulence and stupidity. The two young investors involved are shown beginning their financial dealings working out of a garage (a pleasingly archetypal American image if ever there was one), and the experienced trader they get to help them, Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), expresses frequent disillusion with the banking industry and in fact has left the game when we first see him, preferring to garden and grow seeds. It's a colorful and rough-edged group; of the players betting on the housing market to fail, only Ryan Gosling's character carries himself with the air of what you might typically think of in a Wall Street guy - smooth, cynical, never afraid to express his obvious self-interest. But these guys are the bright and focused ones in the story, capitalizing on the inattention, stupidity, and smugness of the banks around them. In effect, the movie is something of a caper film, and as with any good caper film, it's difficult not to pull for the guys who've come up with a brilliant plan. In the world they inhabit, it's almost as if they deserve to be rewarded for their intelligence, foresight, and balls. When the economy starts to tank as they predicted but this does not at first turn into the profit they envisioned, they and the audience smell a rat; of course the banks are not playing fair and it irritates you as it irritates them. Dammit, I was thinking, are they not even going to get what they should be getting. This caper has to pay off. "It is possible we're in completely fraudulent system," Burry says, echoing what the average person watching the movie may very well feel about the U.S. economic system. The story's superb construction has you on the iconoclasts' side and you can understand and smile when the young investors, in their excitement over success, start dancing. It takes their mentor Brad Pitt to remind them that they are rejoicing over what in essence will be the collapse of the US economy. Not that Pitt's character, or the chastened young pair, refuse to take their profits.
What happened in the end? We all know. Exactly one banker went to jail, the banks remained intact, no substantial reforms occurred. The Big Short doesn't let you forget any of this, and it darkens in tone enough at its conclusion to leave you with the appropriate feelings of anger and disgust. But along the way, there are the many laughs I've mentioned, and the movie is indeed a fascinating study in how to engage an audience and direct their rooting interest, regardless of the story's overall consequences. Like with any movie or book, set in any milieu, you root for the people with the most guts, the funniest lines, and the brains to take advantage of a system too dumb and too arrogant to take them seriously. The Big Short is the kind of movie that has its cake and eats it also. There are no genuine little guys in its Wall Street world, but in its specific context, the outsiders win. Outsiders, not heroes, as Ryan Gosling's character makes clear. Through its meticulous and clever structure, the film lets you appreciate their victory while never letting the system as a whole off the hook. In a way that's rare, I left The Big Short feeling buoyant and infuriated at the same time. Well done.