When Michael Lewis published The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, a mere two years had passed since the financial crisis of 2008. His ability to translate complicated, obfuscatory details about the financial industry through cartoon characters was enough to craft a bestseller. Having previously filtered an explanation of baseball fielding statistics through sailor-mouthed fireball Billy Beane in Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, Lewis then turned to the equally candid Steve Eisman, surgeon turned market savant Dr. Michael Burry, and the founders of dumb-luck, garage-band hedge fund Cornwall Capital to document the death of the big banks by their own hands. Readers were left sufficiently outraged and entertained.
These eccentric soothsayers often speak in financial jargon, as a result of their industry’s want to keep lay investors from completely understanding how their money is being used. The book’s biggest strength comes from Lewis’s translation of these terms into understandable concepts. He’ll dedicate entire chapters to explanations of synthetic CDOs, financial tranches, and credit default swaps before showing exactly how these things screwed the public over. It’s hardly a leftist screed, but it’s a powerful call for responsible capitalism. No wonder it, alongside Debt: The First 5000 Years and The Shock Doctrine, became a manifesto for the protesters of Occupy Wall Street, a mostly well-informed populace that brought attention to these questionable financial practices, but were ultimately shut down by police due to civil and not-so-civil disobedience.
Five years after the book first informed middle-class investors exactly where their money went, it’s time for an Adam McKay comedy to replace the tragedy. Which isn’t to say that this shifting of gears is inexplicable, as McKay’s earlier work, such as the Anchorman films’ cartoonish take on media complicity, anticipates his interests here. But The Big Short is largely content to proceed as a series of shouting matches between its characters, with Steve Carell, as Eisman stand-in Mark Baum, at the center of it all.
Baum is presented as a man with a personal vendetta against bullshit, who objects during a financial conference filled with purposefully misleading speeches and presentations. This is rendered awkward by Carell straining to inhabit a smarter, yet even more socially aloof, iteration of The Office’s Michael Scott. Any other attempts at humor reduce Lewis’s characters to quirks, whether it be Dr. Michael Burry’s (Christian Bale) bad eye and Asperger’s syndrome, Baum’s need to be right and to be heard that he’s right, and the Cornwall guys’ (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock) boyish giddiness. For McKay, every scene must be a clash of these disparate personalities.
Another travesty of tone arises from a much more practical decision. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (United 93), gives relatively dead office spaces the look and feel of action scenes. With the camera so frenetically zooming, focusing, unfocusing, panning, and generally doing its best to not keel over, scenes with essential narrative information are rendered so unintelligible that the tension falls out of them. A scene in which the Cornwall bros sit in Chase bank’s lobby is accompanied by dozens of handheld camera tosses and fumbles—anything to avoid shooting the architecture, giving spatial coherence, or actually showing what’s happening in the sequence.
In a rare moment of calm, Burry stands silent in the background of a long-take shot after a foregrounded employee asks if Scion Capital will still be standing after so many of their investors’ money had been used to buy credit default swaps at a loss. Burry stops, turns, and faces the camera before gravely stating: “I don’t know.” The pointed stillness of this scene stands out among the formal razzle dazzle that pervades the film, allowing for a moment of repose before the vast social bottoming out that’s soon to follow.
The Big Short’s message is an antidote to the insouciant attitude toward laissez-faire practices that harm the middle and lower classes. In a world relying on jargon-driven experts of each trade, mass culture needs a translator to keep a democratic check on the powers-that-be. The film, like the book, spends ample time explaining synthetic collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps, offering the average Joe a rudimentary understanding of the things that incited Occupy Wall Street protesters.
Ryan Gosling’s Jared Vennett, acting as the film’s narrator and a stand-in for Michael Lewis, will momentarily stop the film to introduce, say, Selena Gomez or Margot Robbie so they can give an easily digestible explanation of these complicated trading tricks. This sort of snappy, fourth-wall-breaking wags a finger at the perceived facile nature of celebrity-driven mass culture even as it ultimately condescends to audiences by assuming they’re incapable of receiving this education any other way.