Anchorman director Adam McKay tackles the banking crisis of 2007 with The Big Short, a film based on real moneymen who anticipated the crash and bet against the banks.
It’s difficult to feel any warmth towards Adam McKay’s film The Big Short. After all, its focus on the Rolex-wearing egos of Wall Street leaves a bitter taste. Those of us (read: almost everyone) feeling the full force of their self-serving hubris take little joy in watching the mechanism for financial downfall crank its cogs in this world of William Fioravanti suits. It’s therefore necessary for McKay, the director who brought us Anchorman, to keep a tongue lodged in cheek. However, based on financial journalist Michael Lewis’ 2010 book, The Big Short reveals the more serious side of McKay. This isn’t Talladega Nights. The film’s comedy is rooted in a sense of irony, the laughs less guttural. You’ll smile because the only other option is to shed a thousand tears.
But it works. It shouldn’t do. These aren’t good people. They’re unlikable in attitude, in ambition and in foresight. They’re the rich getting richer. Yet, there’s something sadistically satisfying in shrewd money-men getting one over the shrewd bankers. Moreover, the film enforces its worth by detailing in layman’s terms how the bankers stomped all over the 99%. How they manifested a financial environment for their gain at the expense of the common man and woman, and how, when it looked to be crashing down, they tried to dilute their failings by manipulating an inadequately regulated and unpoliced banking system. At best their actions in the build up to the 2007 financial crisis were fundamentally flawed, insidious and corrupt; at worst they were criminal.
For those that know their subprime loans from their collateralised debt obligations and credit default swaps, The Big Short will feel like a history lesson at nursery school. For everyone else (like me), it’ll be a reintroduction to the credit crunch; a neat and stylish stage from which we see the financial bubble grow before its inevitable burst. McKay is delightfully smart with his exposition-heavy narrative; throwing in pseudo cue cards in the form of text descriptions, quotes from insiders and commentators, and even quirky skits such as Margot Robbie in a bubble bath explaining the difference between a “good” mortgage and a “bad” one.
There’s a tendency to make the real life players in this tale of financial apocalypse thinly moulded composites. It’s a criticism rightly levelled at The Big Short but it’s one that can be forgiven by virtue of giving faces to what is otherwise a collection of complicated jargon and numbers on a computer screen. McKay navigates an ocean of banking red tape, administrative formalities and financial wheeler-dealing through his protagonists who ultimate predict the crash and bet against the banks.
He’s helped by the fact this prudent collection of moneymen are tackling relatively new ground, even for them. It means lots of questions and repetitive wrangling which, while giving the likes of Ryan Gosling the platform to deliver a wonderfully acerbic, desert-dry performance as fake-tanned Wall Street trader Jared Vennett, clues us back into the pending economic meltdown. The sheer scale of their ambitions and the damning aftermath makes McKay’s task even more important: to produce a document that clearly outlines the banks failings as well as one that acts as a cautionary tale which, at the very least, leaves no uncertainty as to who the villains of the piece are. As is alluded to in the film, the big banks managed to pull off this scam because no one outside those banking circles getting rich off it understood the mechanics of the racket. The Big Short breaks it down for everyone else. Now we not only know who we’re pointing the finger at, we know why we’re pointing the finger.
Crucially, McKay entertains along the way. Perhaps not the obvious director to bring Michael Lewis’ book to the screen, McKay proves he has more in his locker than slapstick and situation comedy. Anchorman, while satirising news media, was basically a vehicle for Will Ferrell (and friends) to act out their absurdist fantasies while Step Brothers, Talladega Knights and The Other Guys, were similarly geared around their comic stars doing what they did best. Here, the comedy, if you want to call it that, is reduced to the sharp-toothed edges of boardroom bickering and caustic irony. Aside from some wacky pseudo infomercials featuring famous celebrities completely unrelated to the banking world, McKay is restrained in his approach and bloody-minded in his distillation of the material. It helps that Gosling, although only enjoying a small role, is excellent, while Steve Carell and Christian Bale carry much of the burden as foresighted fund managers willing to bet millions on the banks failing.
The appeal of The Big Short remains despite its focus on the institution that brought misery to millions around the world. Watching the economic train crash waiting to happen leads us on an inevitable journey to unhappy endings. Yet McKay’s skill at dramatising the events up to the crash from the point of view of those willing to take on the banks at their own game is perversely pleasurable. There’s an underlining significance to it also; a sense of foreboding deriving from the idea that if it happened once, it could happen again. That’s where McKay really excels. He understands the complexities of his audience’s anxiety and its anger and says let’s laugh about it together for an hour or two. The alternatively, it must be said, doesn’t bear thinking about.