Rage Against The Machine
There’s a line in Adam McKay’s new film, The Big Short, that perfectly encapsulates what the film means and how its characters relate to it.
“The truth is like poetry. And everyone f**king hates poetry.”
When we’re children, we’re taught to share, to be nice, to behave in a fundamentally decent way. Theoretically, anyway. As we get older, and it’s different for everyone, things change. We’re told that success is measured monetarily, that our self-worth is directly proportional to our net worth. We display a lack of empathy that’s staggering, because it becomes all about competition, all about winning. Because, by definition, if you’re a winner, then someone else must be a loser.
The Big Short understands the truth at the heart of unrestrained capitalism, the hyper focus on the idea of I’m getting mine, and screw everybody else. It’s a film that’s smart, funny, and engineered on a genetic level to piss you off. There’s real anger here, seething rage towards the financial geniuses who either accidentally or intentionally engineered the real 2008 economic crisis.
It was all based on a house of cards, and it all happened because of the decline of the housing market caused by the collapse of bonds contrived from sub-prime mortgages. If you’re like me, most of that last sentence is literal gibberish. Take a deep breath and relax, let the convoluted financial terminology wash over you. It all makes sense, trust me. That’s one of the brilliant concepts of the film, the idea that the financial world uses unnecessarily complex jargon, not because the concepts are really that tough to understand, but to artificially puff up their value.
A few people saw the signs of impending doom. One of them is Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a trained physician with a head for numbers and problematic social skills. He runs a successful West Coast hedge fund, and he comes across some alarming data found within the structures of numerous mortgage bonds. For years, the housing market was thought to be totally stable, but Burry sees the signs of a collapse. Burry is a smart guy, so much so that he concocts the idea of betting against the stability of the U.S. housing market, a “short.” In order to do this, he must convince banks to create a new financial tool, a bond insurance policy. If he’s right and the housing market tanks, he makes absolutely stupid money for himself and his firm. If he’s wrong, he and his firm must pay equally stupid amounts of money in premiums.
There’s also Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), a sleazy trader at Deutsche Bank who sees what’s coming. He doesn’t give a damn about sounding the alarm, he just wants to get paid. He meets with hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) to engineer a lucrative deal. Despite working in the belly of the beast, Baum is highly principled and highly angry. He goes along with Vennett, initially to profit off his knowledge and ultimately to sound the alarm. We also meet a pair of neophyte traders (Finn Wittrock and John Magaro) trying to get into the game. They’re mentored by Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), a financial genius who left the industry in disgust and now lives a wealthy hippie lifestyle in Boulder.*
McKay gets excellent performances out of his cast, which isn’t surprising given how talented they all are. As Burry, Christian Bale has a glass eye, more than a touch of Asperger’s syndrome, and a love of Metallica. He’s unconventional, given that he comes to work in shorts and flip-flops, but he’s a genius and he’s baffled that nobody else can see what he sees. Ryan Gosling’s Vennett is the ur-dudebro, an unapologetic scumbag wallowing in his own greed. Pitt is low-key but amusing, and he has a highly effective scene where he reminds his proteges what the stakes of economic collapse really mean.
The standout, however, is Steve Carell’s righteously angry Baum. Carell was primarily known as a comic actor, but he’s been moving towards drama for a while now. Last year, he gave a great performance in Foxcatcher, a movie that couldn’t keep up with his weird complexity. He’s perfectly in sync here as a man living a contradictory life. Baum is wildly successful, wealthy, and in a great marriage with Cynthia (Marisa Tomei). He grieves over a personal tragedy, is angry that financial institutions screw over the little guy repeatedly, and guilty because he’ll profit handsomely from a system he despises. He does absolutely brilliant work.
The film is based on a book by Michael Lewis. Director McKay, along with his co-writer Charles Randolph, has adapted it into a script that’s absolutely breathtaking. All three stories are woven together seamlessly, and all the characters are given time to develop and feel real. Again, if you’re worried about being crushed under the weight of incomprehensible financial gobbledygook, don’t be. Numerous characters break the fourth wall to tell us what’s going on. We have Margot Robbie sipping champagne in a bubble bath explaining mortgage-backed securities. There’s a metric ton of information, and McKay and Randolph’s solidly constructed script gets it across in a way that’s simple to understand and entertaining.
McKay is best known for his surreal comedies with frequent collaborator Will Ferrell. Ferrell has always done his best work with McKay. Watch Anchorman, The Other Guys, or even Step Brothers, and you’ll see that below the bizarre jokes and twisted characters runs a river of simmering anger. Anger towards institutions run by mediocre white guys that are either delusional, greedy, stupid, or all of the above. Here, he puts his anger towards a depraved capitalistic system front and center. He uses it, along with a total command of camerawork and editing to tell the story. For example, there’s a sequence set in Las Vegas. We see the flashing lights, slot machines, pretty girls. Next, we see a bridge. Homeless men sleep under it, and nobody notices. Nobody cares.
There are no heroes in The Big Short. There’s an awful lot of villains and a few anti-heroes. Mostly, there’s a howl of rage towards major banks engaging in nakedly fraudulent activity, a hopelessly corrupt government that’s held nobody accountable, and millions of ordinary people left to pay the price. Worst of all is the sense that, while immigrants and poor people are being demonized, exactly the same thing will happen again.
*Yes, our Boulder.