The Big Short

Today, I want to explore the film: The Big Short, the 2016 Oscar winner for best-adapted screenplay.

I know many people believe that the Academy Awards are overrated, pretentious, racist… (insert your own legitimate criticism here) and yes, the Oscars don’t have a great reputation when it comes to recognizing diversity among actors or films -this cannot be denied. Often times, the Oscars are not a good indicator of what films are popular among the mainstream audiences. Instead, the Oscars nominate literary adaptations and historical biopics which many people either have not seen or have no interest in seeing.

Films that promote popular culture such as comic-book adaptations, the horror genre, or even comedies are typically ignored by the Academy.  However, I still watch the Academy Awards every year to see what films made the cut, turning it into a game to see if I can guess which film will win (I’m usually right by the way). The 2016 awards actually featured some well-made films such as The Big Short, Carol, Spotlight, Mad-Max: Fury Road, Bridge of Spies etc; these films managed to bridge the divide between the art-film crowd and the average movie-goer, merging highbrow content such as the Cold War, repressed sexuality, and financial corruption with commercial entertainment. Everyone can enjoy these films, not just the white upper middle class.

Directed by Adam McKay, known for screwball comedies such as Anchorman and Talladega Nights, this film takes a sobering look at the 2008 financial crisis. The narrative focuses on a set of oddball characters who discovered that the housing market is built on a foundation of unsecured loans, creating a financial system whose instability would inevitably send the market crashing to a halt. The film’s protagonists, thus, decided to bet against the housing market and make billions in profit. If that seems like a lot to swallow in one film, then have no fear – the director knew that the subject matter was bound to leave the audience either scratching their heads or bored out of their minds. McKay used fast-paced editing, pop culture references, and witty humor to keep the audience immersed in the story.

To quote the New York Times, the film is “a smoothie dressed up like junk food.” Adapted from Micheal Lewis’s novel of the same name, The Big Short takes the dry, complex abstractions of high financing and makes it entertaining. Regularly breaking the fourth wall, the film often speaks directly to the audience, using screen text or the appearance of random celebrities to explain complicated terms such as subprime loans, credit default swaps, and CDOs. Thus, the film is accessible to everyone; the audience doesn’t need to be an expert in high finance to understand what is going on in the film.

The Good:
The ensemble cast is amazing. The film situates the audience with a group of eccentric nerds who see the problems in the housing market and decide to bet against it. There’s Michael Burry (played by Christian Bale), an antisocial numbers cruncher who walks around the office barefoot and beats his drumsticks to heavy metal as he probes through financial documents. Steve Carell plays the overly hostile Mark Baum who’s growing cynicism at the banking system becomes a proxy for viewer frustration. Ryan Gosling plays the story’s narrator, Jared Varnett – a character so oily that if he wasn’t right about the banks, you would probably punch him in the face. The film’s characters have just enough idiosyncrasies, that you, as a viewer, can’t help but root for them. Even though, their success can only come at the expense of the housing market folding and millions of people losing their homes and livelihood.

The plain, breezy tone that McKay employs during the film also offers the audience the illusion of retroactive prescience. You could read about the insanity of bundling subprime mortgages into highly rated investment products and think: Well, of course, that was a recipe for disaster. Of course, a drop in the housing market would bring the whole thing crashing down like a Jenga tower. It was obvious. We knew it all along. In fact, almost none of us did; this sentiment is even echoed by the film’s opening voice-over narration. Certainly not the government officials and banking executives who remain at liberty and in positions of power to this day, no one had any idea what was happening. Or if they did know, they didn’t care

That’s where the power of this movie of this movie really lies, instilling within the viewer a deep rage at the carelessness of Wall Street. As The Big Short goes on, it becomes progressively less funny and more depressing, mirroring the attitudes of the characters. The situation is getting more desperate. Nobody seems to realize that the world is on the verge of implosion. The realization slowly dawns that it’s not just stupidity at work here, but something more sinister: the big banks’ outright fraud and others’ willful ignorance.

The Bad:
I’d don’t really have much to say in the ways of criticism; odd – I know. I felt very satisfied after watching this movie, angry but satisfied. Perhaps, the one downfall of this film is that McKay’s adaptation, much like the book, offers no solution as to how this problem can be avoided in the future. Indeed, the final moments of the movie are devoted to an all-out attack on those who caused the problem. “They’re going to get away with it!” Mark Baum yells into his cell phone after learning that the banks are receiving a government bailout. The film leaves you with an overwhelming sense of foreboding and despair as you realize there is nothing stopping the banks from repeating the same mistakes that left millions without savings, without a job, and without a home.

The Verdict:  Opening Weekend.

This is a must-see, even if it will make you so paranoid that you will feel compelled to go over your mortgage loan agreement with a fine-toothed comb.

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