The world economy collapsed in 2008, brought down by the banking industry’s unchecked power to make gigantic risky bets on the housing market, an investment they’d somehow deluded themselves into thinking was a sure thing. Bankers decided to treat the savings and loans of millions upon millions of people as poker chips in their own personal casino. Eventually, they lost, and we were stuck bailing them out. But maybe poker is a bad metaphor. Maybe it was like they were playing blackjack, or spinning the roulette table. No, perhaps it’s more accurate to say they were playing Jenga, and when people in over their heads couldn’t make payments on subprime mortgages, the whole tower fell down. Wait, maybe it would help you understand it better if you thought of bankers bundling bad debt to resell as investments like chefs repurposing leftovers and hoping no one would be the wiser. But forget the metaphors for a second. Would you rather hear all this from a gorgeous woman in a bathtub?
Writer-director Adam McKay tries out every metaphor above and more too, even stooping to cutting to a lady in the bath to spice up exposition, as his latest movie, The Big Short, attempts to explain the 2008 financial crisis in a narrative feature form. You’d think the whole thing would be better suited to a documentary. (That’d be Charles Ferguson’s masterfully comprehensive doc Inside Job.) On the basis of this film, you’d be right. McKay’s clearly burning with anger over the conditions of unchecked, unregulated greed that led to these problems, and the stasis that led to exactly nothing being done to fix them in the years since. He communicates this fervor by bringing a raucous pace to scenes (shot in jittery style by cinematographer Barry Ackroyd) of men in suits sitting around talking numbers. But he also doesn’t trust his audience to follow along, and so drags down a rapid-fire pace and zippy editing with endless narration, fourth-wall breaking lectures, snarky asides, and endless explanations.
Inspired by the well-reported book of the same name by Michael Lewis (Moneyball), McKay, with co-writer Charles Randolph (Love & Other Drugs), focuses the story on the handful of people who, in the early 2000s, saw the housing bubble growing and braced for the impact of the burst. There’s an eccentric hedge fund analyst (Christian Bale), an angry money manager (Steve Carell), a high-stakes trader (Ryan Gosling), and more (including Brad Pitt, Hamish Linklater, Finn Wittrock, and John Magaro). They’re not really fully formed people, more like representations of worldviews and information, conduits through which we are shown aspects of the larger looming problem. Bale and Gosling concoct a scheme to short securitized subprime mortgages. Carell and his employees get in on the action, then research the instability in the housing market on the ground, visiting sleazy loan sharks, underemployed homeowners, and shallow realtors. Everyone’s laughing them out of meetings for betting against the housing market. But the more the characters we follow uncover about the financial system, the more they’re convinced catastrophe is around the corner.
These guys are smart enough to figure out the problems, but only use this knowledge to make themselves money off the inevitable calamity. Sure, they try to tell people about their discoveries – colleagues, journalists, credit rating agencies – but nothing is done to avert the crisis. No one wanted to hear. Powered on frustration and fury, McKay builds an argument that the economy as we know it is essentially a mass delusion built on stupidity and fraud. We the people will believe anything if it’s in rich people’s interest to make it seem true. As difficult as it is to watch this recent history reenacted, it’s even harder to take realizing it could easily happen again. The large ensemble does fine work communicating these ideas, condensing and dispensing piles of spreadsheets at the expense of becoming actual characters, but the movie goes ahead and overexplains anyway.
He’s usually directing comedies (Anchorman, Talladega Nights), but here McKay shifts to a serious message movie out of clear passion. After all, he’s the guy who put in the end credits of his 2010 buddy cop comedy The Other Guys a biting PowerPoint presentation explaining how Wall Street is essentially a Ponzi scheme. It’s well intentioned, and argues a sharp political point. But it’s so tediously expositional and smirkingly condescending. The narration acts like the information it recounts is boring or complicated, often pausing to say, “Confusing, right?” It’s a faux jocular tone that assumes the audience will quickly lose focus on the jargon or get lost in the overflow of technical dialogue. McKay loads the film with celebrity cameos explaining concepts, characters lecturing to the camera, and rapid-fire pop culture signifiers representing the passage of time. It’s basic, but overcomplicated, a deeply irritating approach. I’m not saying the roots of the financial crisis are necessarily simple or quick to grok, but I bet the sorts of people who would go see this movie in the first place might be interested enough to keep up.