“Tell me the difference between stupid and illegal and I’ll have my wife’s brother arrested.”
In The Big Short, everyone is sold short. No one wins and there’s no real protagonist, as we’re reminded to root more for an entire populace than any individual character. Based on Michael Lewis’ book The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, the movie shows that, when it comes to the housing bubble that burst in 2008, we all lost. Adam McKay’s comedy-drama focuses on what it meant to see the crisis coming. What it meant, that is, for an audience already aware that the crisis wasn’t averted.
McKay, known primarily for his slapstick comedies, offers here an often quite sobering tale based ostensibly on reality. At times hilarious, with wacky diversions in the signature vein of the director’s purely comedic movies (see: Margot Robbie in a bathtub breaking down tough concepts for the audience), the story never realyly avoids its uncomfortable truth. To be fair, the film isn’t as depressing as the reality—in no way does it lack humor. But if you were paying attention in 2008, you’ll probably understand why this movie doesn’t feel like Anchorman. That level of seriousness makes The Big Short sincere, mature, and insightful.
As confusing as the specifics of the housing bubble and subsequent stock market collapse may still be to many of us, the film makes it clear that you don’t have to have a degree in economics to realize that we’re screwed—and still be unable to stop bad things from happening. At its core, The Big Short underscores the fact that even the people who understand it all, including those starring in this story, still manage to miss—or in some cases, much more dangerously, ignore—the signs of impending doom. An entire market manipulated unaware Americans and got away with it, not by stupidity but out of greed.
The film features a core set of characters that had the foresight, or paid enough attention, to realize what was going to happen years before the collapse. These men must all must wrestle with the reality that understanding the impending collapse meant looking the crooked underpinnings of our society in the face and, basically, deciding to make a buck or two. To see the reality coming meant, first, trying to convince everyone around you of the uncomfortable concept that things were about to spiral out of control. Second, it meant trying to convince yourself that you were somehow not a part of the bargain.
To be clear, Christian Bale’s character, the California hedge fund manager Michael Burry, does bet against the American economy. He’s intent on following through with his calculations and seems to view the situation remotely; he wants to be proven correct. Another fund manager, Mike Baum (Steve Carell), reluctantly accepts a proposal by Jaret Vennett (Ryan Gosling), deciding the bet is worth the risk. Success, these characters ultimately realize, isn’t really something they’ll be happy to find.
Charlie Geller and Jamie Shipley (John Magaro and Finn Witrock), young guys just looking for a way to introduce their fund to Wall Street, also see things coming, and they do all it takes to get involved. When the duo celebrates their future success, Brad Pitt’s character—Ben Rickert, a former Wall Street trader turned water conservator—expresses remorse and, in a telling moment, shows how horrible it is to celebrate the horrible fate that awaits so many ordinary people.
You might at first assume that Vennett, Ryan Gosling’s character, is the sleaziest one here, basically making a sales pitch to Baum’s company based on the idea that the market will collapse. But he’s really no better or worse than everyone else being played by the system and, in this case, playing along. Seeing the truth, for these characters, means making a bargain on the American Dream. Accepting that you’ll make money off of our society’s back might mean screwing over the banks—but it also means becoming gradually less human, losing one’s empathy, becoming more and more like those institutions that caused the problem in the first place.
The characters featured here, based on those who saw the crash coming, are young and old, industry insiders and outsiders alike. That helps show that no one went unscathed historically and no one’s without fault. It’s worth noting, though, that these stars are also all white men. There’s no major female character here at all, in what seems like an unnecessary oversight. Aside from a few industry professionals, a wife, and sprinklings of female extras, women are basically absent from the film. Still, this just underscores the reality of the old men’s club that’s so emblematic of the banking industry, the one The Big Short shows us has always been steeped in fraud, obscured by jargon, and kept away from ordinary people.
During the course of the film, the audience first might be persuaded to side with one company or another. You might hope Baum makes the biggest deal or that Burry should be proven right because he’s the underdog doubted by his funders. The more the story progresses, though, the more the reality it’s based on impedes your ability to root for anyone. The leads characters themselves stop wanting to succeed, stop wishing for the collapse to come to fruition. This depiction of the double-edged sword involved for them provides a harrowing humanity, even as the funny diversion tactics from the start of the film are abandoned halfway through. At some point, it seems, the depressing nature of the truth overwhelms everyone’s defense mechanisms—even a film’s. No one can be glad when everyone’s let down by an entire financial infrastructure. As all of the characters we’re watching succeed, it’s clear that this is no real competition and there’s no real finish line. Being right doesn’t neutralize the wrongness of a real, profoundly disturbing situation.