A Wild Tale of Impending Catastrophe

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A scene from "The Big Short." A perceptive, menacing view of the world.
A scene from "The Big Short." A perceptive, menacing view of the world.Credit: AP

"The Big Short" Directed by Adam McKay; written by Adam McKay, Charles Randolph, based on a book by Michael Lewis; with Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, John Magaro, Finn Wittrock, Brad Pitt, Jeremy Strong, Hamish Linklater, Marisa Tomei, Melissa Leo.

Even if you don’t understand anything about economics – and I don’t – you can still enjoy Adam McKay’s “The Big Short.” Written by McKay and Charles Randolph, based on Michael Lewis’s best-selling book, the movie follows several characters who predicted the economic crisis that erupted in 2008, sent shockwaves through the world, and left millions without their savings, homes or jobs.

Having watched “The Big Short,” I still don’t understand exactly what happened to cause the collapse (just as I still can’t grasp exactly what has happened here in Israel with regard to our natural gas reserves, despite seeing dozens of programs and debates on the topic). At some moments in the film we see characters discussing economic concepts – in fact, they talk about little else – that sounded like gibberish to me. I still don’t know, for example, exactly what they mean by “hedge fund” – a term that recurs again and again – and yet I was riveted by the film, where the raw aggression, corruption and cruelty are no less pervasive than they are in “Game of Thrones.”

“The Big Short” is not, of course, a fantasy; it is set in the real-life United States just before the crisis, and most of the characters in it are real-life figures presented by their actual names. And yet the movie, which injects considerable humor into its tale of imminent catastrophe, feels as though it is portraying an alternative yet dominant reality – perhaps the only reality that controls our lives and our fates. In this reality, all anyone cares about is climbing the ladder and making as much money as possible. We might call this reality “the system,” or, to be more precise, “the capitalist system.” If “The Big Short” offers a perceptive, menacing view of the world we live in, it is thanks to the ironic yet frightening portrayal of this system as being at once “alternate” and intimately relevant to our own lives.

Using a range of narrative and visual devices, “The Big Short” introduces us to a group of economists – veterans as well as newcomers – who recognized that the crisis was coming, as well as others who were horrified by the prospect. One central figure is Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), an eccentric with a glass eye who does not behave the way a senior economist is supposed to behave; he dresses oddly and walks around barefoot in the office. There’s also a slick banker, Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who provides the voice-over narration; two ambitious young economists, Charles Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), who believe that they can get rich off the impending crash; and another economist, perhaps the hero of the movie, Mark Baum (Steve Carell), a specialist in hedge funds who is horrified by what he sees going on around him (he is also the only character we get to see having a private life; there are short scenes of him together with his wife, played by Marisa Tomei, and we learn about a family trauma that contributes to how unsettled he feels). We also meet Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), an ex-banker who retired from the business and opted for an alternative lifestyle but is gradually pulled back in by the circumstances.

Both real and fictional

The last really good film about the 2008 crisis was J.C. Chandor’s 2011 “Margin Call,” which followed the 24 hours before the collapse inside a New York investment firm. Chandor’s movie had its satirical side; the best scene showed two of the heroes taking a car service to Manhattan, looking out on passerby while one of them remarks on how they don’t know what’s about to hit them. “The Big Short” is a very different kind of picture. Where “Margin Call,” offered a condensed, realist narrative, McKay’s film jumps around between many characters and many devices – including cameo appearances by celebrities such as actresses Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez and chef Anthony Bourdain, who appear as themselves, addressing us directly and trying to explain certain economic concepts. McKay also has actors speak directly into the camera in other contexts, smashing the traditional narrative as he smashes the capitalist system in order to reassemble both of them anew: the system becomes a predatory monster, and the story grows wild and unruly to represent the impending catastrophe.  
“The Big Short” is a rare recent example of a movie that combines content and form successfully. It joins several recent pictures in combining real and fictional events, blending feature filmmaking with pseudo-documentary – apparently a rising trend in American cinema. Another virtue is that the actors hold their own despite the many narrative and visual tricks. At the lead is Christian Bale, eccentric and extroverted as always. If you respond to his kind of acting – and I sometimes do not – you’ll enjoy his performance, and if you don’t, you will not. For Steve Carell, this is another chance to show his abilities as a fine actor and not just a comedian, as he did in “Foxcatcher.”

“The Big Short” is an essentially depressing film that does not let depression win out, but rather deconstructs it into ironic components that turn the result into both melodrama and satire. Out of its seemingly amused exterior we can sense the shock and horror the movie aims to convey. While these do not build up into real protest, the result is nonetheless cautionary and disturbing – a wise creative strategy that deserves respect, like the movie as a whole.

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