The Most Beautiful Fraud: The Big Short

It’s a truism I’ve repeated in my critical writings more times than I can count:  you have to review the movie you’re watching, not the movie you wish you were watching.  Any sharp critic with a creative streak and a broad foundation can easily imagine how a movie, particularly one that disappoints on a particularly basic level, could be better, but that’s not fair to the movie.  As Henry James put it, the only obligation to which you can hold a work of art without being arbitrary is that it should be interesting.

The Big Short is certainly interesting.  Based on Michael Lewis’ book and directed by comedy veteran Adam McKay, it sets for itself the daunting task of making a narrative out of the enraging and fiendishly complicated circumstances that led to the collapse of the U.S. housing market, and the subsequent implosion of the finance industry and the entire global economy, in 2008.  Lewis has a particular gift for homing in on the most colorful characters in big, complex stories like this, and focusing on those characters while using the devilish interplay of money and numbers as the backdrop, Bennett Miller made his Moneyball into a surprisingly compelling and likable film; McKay tries the same thing with The Big Short with rather less success.

For one thing, The Big Short often plays like it wants to be a documentary, but it knows that people don’t pack movie houses to watch documentaries, so it tries everything it can think of to retain the qualities of one while not actually being one.  The story of the housing market’s phony façade and the financial chicanery that allowed so many people to get so incredibly rich off of it is both hideous and fascinating, but it’s not a story that can easily be told by dramatic actors behaving in a more or less naturalistic way.  So we get all kinds of fancy tricks here to explain to the confused viewer just what exactly is going on here:  characters narrating their own stories, flashbacks within flashbacks, breaking the fourth wall to confirm or question the verisimilitude of a scene, and so on.  McKay’s background in the more freewheeling arena of comedy serves him well here, as these feints don’t seem as absurd as they might, but they can also take you out of the narrative, which is more important than it seems since the movie is obviously leaning pretty heavily on your emotional investment with the characters.

That’s also a problem, because no one in the movie is…well, it would be an understatement to say no one is likable.  Everyone is more or less detestable.  There’s no way the movie could have been made — at least not in this country and with this kind of budget — by telling the story of the real heroes (few of them as there were) who opposed this kind of abstruse financial chicanery, since watching a handful of journalists and legislators write articles no one’s going to read and propose laws no one’s going to vote for isn’t very exciting.  And there’s even less of a chance the movie could tell the story of the tens of millions of ordinary working people whose lives were completely destroyed by rich assholes gambling with their livelihoods (here, the victims are almost completely invisible, reduced to a token tattooed biker goon who stands in for everyone who got fucked out of their pensions and savings so a hedge fund manager could buy a new boat).  Even if those kinds of approaches were possible, this is where I risk asking for a completely different film than the one I just watched, which is, again, unfair.

But damn, it’s hard to stomach the way it’s told on screen.  Unavoidable as it may have been, the choice to pin the narrative on people like Christian Bale’s Michael Burry, Steve Carrell’s Mike Baum, and John Magaro’s Charlie Geller leaves an extremely bad taste in the mouth of anyone paying attention, since these men were the exact same kind of shitbag profiteers who triggered the crisis in the first place.  Their moral objections once they discover how massive the fraud behind the housing bond market really is can’t be taken as sincere, since they’re literally betting on people losing their homes and savings, and the only reason they’re upset in the first place is that their opposite numbers at the banks are even more corrupt than they are and find ways of cheating them out of their blood money.  The story is dressed up with a lot of blubber about Baum’s guilt over his brother’s suicide and Burry’s lonely childhood and the like, but who gives a fuck?  At least they’ve got hundreds of millions of dollars to comfort them, which can’t be said about all the people who were ruined by the collapse and all had sob stories of their own.

There are other problems with The Big Short.  The choice to have rich, famous celebrities ‘explain’ complicated financial instruments in a fairly contemptuous manner is crass at best.  For all its high drama, it’s sort of dramatically inert, perhaps an inevitable consequence of the fact that we know what happened and that nobody was punished for their incalculable larceny against the American system.  The acting is competent all the way around, but never what you’d call excellent;  Brad Pitt is mostly just playing the Brad Pitt role, and Steve Carrell is wildly overpraised for a performance that would seem overheated and dumb if it wasn’t coming from a comedian who has a lower hurdle to jump.  The film was nominated for five Academy Awards, but it’s hard to see why; McKay and his team have certainly put together an interesting film, but sometimes interesting just isn’t enough.

Then again, there’s the argument that all this was on purpose.  Clearly, McKay wants you to leave the theater full of rage that something like this could happen at all, could happen with so few consequences for so many of its architects, could happen with virtually no reform, and worst of all, could happen — and likely is happening — again.  And that’s exactly what I did.  Does that make it a success as a piece of agitprop, however questionable its structure?  I’m not sure.  I got angry, sure, but I was always angry.  I wish this story had played out on the front pages of every paper in the nation as it was happening, instead of as a minor entertainment years down the line.  But there I go, wishing again.

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