Or how the housing crisis was pretty tough for a bunch of rich, white guys. I’ve been musing on this film quite a bit since I watched it a couple of nights ago. Not because it’s a great film but because I can see two ways to review it – for its craft and within the context of mainstream contemporary Hollywood film making. It’s about the US housing crisis of 2007 and chooses to try to explain why it was allowed to happen rather than explore the effects. We follow several men, all misfits in some way, who saw the signs of the housing mortgage bond collapse and used it, and the blindness and perhaps deliberate fraudulence of the banks and regulatory bodies, for their own financial gain.
So you have a film about a pretty dry and boring topic that most punters like me don’t understand. You also have an ending that everyone knows. To give it credit, The Big Short does a good job of explaining the technicalities, injecting a certain amount of warmth and humour and using montage, quick editing and quirky cameos to keep your interest and give a sense of the culture at the time.
Like Deadpool, the film breaks the fourth wall with characters sporadically turning and talking directly to camera. I’ve realised this technique is used for humour – to make the audience part of the joke – and also to allow tricky aspects of the plot to be explained rather than having to show it within the narrative. So we get Margot Robbie in a bubble bath explaining subprime loans and Selena Gomez at a roulette table explaining Collateralised Debt Obligations, or CDOs. I know quite a bit of the lingo now.
There isn’t a huge amount of drama in this viewpoint though. Yes there are some moments of realisation for the main characters, a little bit of soul searching as they realise their gain will mean tragedy for millions of people and a tiny grain of suspense as the collapse doesn’t happen on schedule, but aside from the educational aspects, there’s not a lot happening in this tale. The actors are good, Christian Bale as expected does a good job at being odd and unattractive, as does Steve Carell, and it took me half the film to recognise Brad Pitt, hiding his usual glamour behind a beard and a handful of neuroses. Ryan Gosling with a bad haircut completes the quadrella of Hollywood leading men showing their acting chops by looking ordinary.
So that’s the film review, but let’s look at The Big Short in the context of Hollywood film lately. Like Spotlight, it chooses to explore a very real tragedy that affected many many vulnerable people, not through their eyes so that we understand the personal cost, the ramifications of institutionalised power and capitalism, but through the experiences of a bunch of white guys well removed from any real consequences. We see them wring their hands and try to sympathise, we understand that they are just ordinary people ‘like us’ (if we are white, male, white collar workers), but the greatest cost for them is a moment of moral doubt, quickly overtaken by million and billion dollar payouts.
These men are the heroes of the films, the rebel, the cynics and the young idealists who are part of a larger system but are the entrepreneurs, the ones who don’t conform, the ones who question and take chances. Although they are all flawed in their own way, we understand that they are caring, clever and honest. The baddies in The Big Short are the faceless, greedy banks and the people at the front line, who fill their pockets and throw away their ethics. The women, children and families who bore the brunt of the disaster are not given a voice.
These men, Burry, Vennett, Baum, Gellar, Shipley et al, knew what was coming, that the economy would collapse and millions of people would be homeless, and it’s not that they did nothing, they bet on it happening. Michael Burry (Bale) bet $1.4 billion against the banks and eventually made over $260 billion, the others made millions. This is not a cautionary tale, this is a shifting of blame.
Bechdel test – fail