“Saints don’t live on Park Avenue.”
I only remember a few things about Adam McKay’s 2010 buddy cop comedy starring Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg. Its opening death scene was hilarious, I don’t think I laughed a single other time after that, and the end credits involved a PowerPoint presentation describing the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. I guess one underwhelming comedy with that it its core wasn’t enough to get his disgust about the GFC out of his system. Because now McKay is back, with a much more grown up and direct take on the issue, with The Big Short.
Michael Burry (Christian Bale) isn’t your typical Wall Street trader. He wears old shorts and t-shirts with no shoes around the office, he listens to classic, thrash metal years Metallica, and he notices things that other traders don’t. Like the fact that the American property market is on the verge of collapse. With property being one of the few sure things in the history of US finance, he finds it hard to convince anyone else of his findings. But one other trader sees the value in Burry’s theory, and soon Jared Vennet (Ryan Gosling) is pursuing the same idea.
It seems, the property market is built on bad credit, somehow disguised as good credit. The basic crux of Burry’s discovery is that by betting against the property market, he can cash in big when it collapses after those masses of bad mortgages default and take down the good ones with them. Burry uses capital from his own firm to gamble over $1billion on the idea, while Vennet needs to raise capital elsewhere to throw his own bet in the ring. Capital he finds via a small sub firm of a major bank, run by Mark Baum (Steve Carell). Meanwhile, small time traders Charlie (John Magaro) and Jamie (Finn Wittrock) stumble across the scheme themselves, and look to their mentor, former high level trader, Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) for guidance on how they can get involved too.
The Big Short is a movie about bankers, Wall Street traders and economics nerds. But McKay shoots it in a way that makes it feel like an action packed police procedural. His constantly moving camera goes beyond hand held, it’s like an episode of NYPD Blue, with little pans, zooms and movements every time the frame is at risk of being still for longer than a single second.
He also breaks the fourth wall in really cool ways. Beyond Gosling’s character speaking to the camera every now and then to explain some of the intricacies of this world, characters will also stop mid scene to let us know that this might not be exactly how it happened in the real world, but poetic licence aside, it was just as insane and scary. The most extreme fourth wall breaking moments include Margot Robbie explaining finance from a bubble bath, and celeb chef Anthony Bordain preparing a fish stew as a metaphor for how bad credit can get wrapped up as good.
I don’t want to say that The Big Short is a sign of McKay becoming a better director. Because that would be shitting on the great work he’s done in his broad comedies. And I think directing comedy is a lot harder than directing drama. But I do want to say that The Big Short is a sign of McKay becoming a much more versatile director than I would have given him credit for. This is serious drama done in a really fresh, interesting way. And it was done by the bloke famous for stuff like Talladega Nights, Anchorman and Step Brothers.
This movie didn’t explain and simplify the GFC and American property crash in a way that makes me think I could now explain it to someone else. But it did make me understand the broad strokes of what was happening in the context of the story. It’s also one of those movies that makes it very clear that the truth is stranger, scarier and more bonkers than any fiction a movie could ever portray.
I don’t think anyone would be surprised to learn that the 2008 GFC was a result of corporate greed. But what The Big Short has to say that might surprise you, is how inevitable it was, yet only a few people saw it coming. And when they did, their first thought wasn’t to see how it could be avoided, it was to see how they could cash in on it.