At Oscar Time, Don’t Bet Against The Big Short

THE BIG SHORT, Steve Carell, 2015. ph: Jaap Buitendijk/©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

“I have many leather-bound books, and my apartment smells like rich mahogany.”
“It would give us so much extra space in our room to do activities.”
“Shake ’n’ bake!”

If you can name the sources of these quotes, then you, like me, are a fan of Adam McKay, the director behind such classics as Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (and Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues), Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and Step Brothers.

McKay, who co-owns a production company and cofounded the Funny or Die website with Will Ferrell and Chris Henchy, is known for over-the-top farces, not the kinds of films that garner awards-season glory—that is, until now. His latest endeavor, The Big Short, is up for five Oscars, including best director. Yes, you read that correctly.

So what kind of film is The Big Short? Anchorman it’s not, though there’s still humor to be had. Based on Michael Lewis’s 2010 book The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, the movie depicts the men who anticipated the 2008 collapse of the U.S. housing market and made a winning bet against it. The necessarily elaborate explanation of what led to the collapse and how these men discovered it is the subject of this…comedy? drama? docudrama? McKay has called it a “tra-medy.” Not fitting neatly into any genre is one of the film’s many assets. If the 2008 financial crisis was unprecedented, shouldn’t a movie about it be as well?

ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY, Will Ferrell, Adam McKay on the set of Anchorman. (DreamWorks/Everett Collection)
Will Ferrell and Adam McKay on the set of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (DreamWorks/Everett Collection)

For one thing, there’s the unlikely director. Speaking to W magazine, McKay said he never expected Paramount Pictures, which owned the rights to the book, to see him as an obvious choice: “I knew they probably wouldn’t take me seriously. But I also knew that it’s so much fun not to be taken seriously, and then, when you are serious—and I was very serious about The Big Short—it’s a surprise. Everyone likes to be surprised.” Then again, maybe The Big Short isn’t that abrupt a shift. McKay’s other films, ridiculous on the surface, are clearly satirical. Anchorman ridicules the male ego and the often illogical arguments against gender equality. Via the masculine, openly gay race car driver Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen), Talladega Nights confronts homophobia in its natural habitat. And The Campaign, which McKay produced, parodies insidious political rhetoric to great comedic effect. In each case, the old cliché applies—it’s funny because it’s true.

The financial crisis of 2008 is true, but how could it be funny? The guys who saw the crash coming and bet accordingly are real people, and McKay mines that truth for all the chuckles it’s worth. Christian Bale (nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar) plays Michael Burry, MD, the hedge fund manager who first crunches the numbers and spies the impending storm. Burry has a penchant for death metal and plays air drums in his office, which he doesn’t leave for days at a time. As trader Jared Vennett, Ryan Gosling (like just about everyone in the film) has a filthy mouth; he also has a temple of a body, often taking business calls at the gym (in real life, this is pretty gross, but it’s Ryan Gosling so I can’t complain).

THE BIG SHORT, from left: Jeremy Strong, Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater, Steve Carell, JeffryBrad Pitt’s Ben Rickert is a former trader who has forsaken the karma-killing ways of Wall Street for a quiet life in Boulder, Colorado. Rickert is sucked reluctantly back into the game by his neighbors, a pair of young guys who need his credentials to get a seat at the big boys’ table. His deadpan disgust for the business is wryly funny, as when he counsels his protégés to give up banking and start trading seeds instead. Finally, Steve Carell’s take on tortured hedge funder Mark Baum is the film’s best performance and should have earned Carell an acting nom too. His acerbic commentary and DGAF behavior lend the movie most of its emotional heat. All the acting is superb, and it shouldn’t be held against the film that there aren’t many female characters (a standout is Adepero Oduye, who does a great job as Carell’s advisor), since there weren’t many in the real-life scenario, either.

THE BIG SHORT, Ryan Gosling, 2015. ph: Jaap Buitendijk/©Paramount/Courtesy Everett CollectionSo are we supposed to hate these guys, or what? Although they didn’t create the housing-collapse shit storm, they did profit from it big-time. The film presents them as amoral, not as villains. They can’t stop the impending crisis, so, as professional gamblers faced with a sure thing, they do what gamblers do—they bet. Burry takes the initiative, and the smug condescension of the banks as they accept his money provides some grim humor. While we’re no doubt intended to look down upon these shortsighted professionals, the movie offers few clearly evil characters.

Rather, it proposes that most industry insiders didn’t knowingly profit off the little guy. Many didn’t realize they were doing so, making the crime one of (perhaps willful) ignorance. Burry & Co. are powerless to help average Americans, but they can make the banks pay. In fact, since only one banker went to jail as a result of the crash, and the government bailed out the biggest banks, in a sense the payout they had to make to the big shorters was the only punishment these firms actually received.

THE BIG SHORT, Christian Bale, 2015. ph: Jaap Buitendijk/©Paramount/Courtesy Everett CollectionThe stellar cast helps make murky ethical questions poignant, and the film also provides a service by stopping the action periodically to explain the more confusing elements. Celebrities such as Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdain step in to put complexities like the credit default swap market, subprime mortgage bundling and collateralized debt obligation into understandable language. While occasionally jarring, these segments unearth pernicious wrongdoing from under the industry’s mountains of bullshit.

If a concept is confusing enough, Wall Street has a history of betting regular folks won’t ask questions about it. This gamble has undeniably paid off, but The Big Short doesn’t let it stay that way. While my new understanding of this crazy-terrible event definitely pissed me off, it also had a lightening effect. When I walked out of the theater, I didn’t feel quite so helpless anymore.

Photos: Jaap Buitendijk/©Paramount/Everett Collection