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The Big Short

Much has been written about the various tricks Adam McKay uses in this Wall Street comedy to create the film he has, and those tricks have put viewers of this movie on opposite sides of the fence. His breaking of the fourth wall, i.e. having an actor look straight into the camera and address the audience directly; his using scenes as pauses in the narrative to explain various terms of the crash of 2008, e.g. Collateralized Debt Obligations or Sub-Prime Loans; and his employing famous people who have nothing to do with the rest of the movie to make those explanations have been alternately called brilliant and arrogant. (My personal favorite is the first of these, when Margot Robbie, the beautiful, Australian actress who became famous portraying Leonardo DiCaprio’s wife in The Wolf of Wall Street, sits in a bubble bath with a glass of champagne and explains what a CDO is. The ironies in this scene are multiple and hilarious.) One side of this argument believes that he accomplished something many thought impossible: he was able to explain much of the always complex, usually confusing jargon of this massive economic meltdown in such a way that anyone could understand it. The other side believes that he still didn’t clarify anything, and/or that his “cutesy” way of trying to explain was demeaning to the film’s audience.

I’m in the first group. These devices do more than explain difficult things necessary to understanding this film. They provide an amazingly fertile set of comic interludes to what could otherwise have been a grim and boring film. Short’s pace is super-charged like the people and the industry McKay is portraying, where one-millionth of a second can determine the loss or gain of millions of dollars. The interludes help the audience keep pace. One of the points of the movie is that even many of the investors were moving so fast that they had no idea what the products actually were, which they were so often buying and selling. Much less did the public at large, so explanations of some of the key terms were necessary in one form or another. McKay’s solution to this problem was absolutely brilliant.

The Big Short is not without its drawbacks. A movie with clear themes, the merciless self-interest and greed that propelled the crash is explained in raw, anger-inducing detail, but there is almost nothing about the government’s role in the crash, from lack of regulation of the banking industry to the astonishingly big role government-owned Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac played in this shell game. The unrelenting greed that the bankers of Wall Street played in this scandalous blot on American business history comes in for some much-needed direct approbation, and any Christian should be glad of that. If nothing else, it is a wonderful study in idol-making (from a number of different perspectives) and explores the sins of both materialism and acquisitiveness at deep levels.

Short is intelligent, extremely well-acted, beautifully written and so well-ordered in every way, that it really is that rare success story of a filmmaker taking a story that has been told woefully badly by even brilliant artisans (the aforementioned Wolf of Wall Street by the peerless Martin Scorsese) and telling it well. McKay has made a film that by any measure is extraordinary in its genre-breaking magnificence, too. It is impossible to call this a drama, but equally impossible to call it a comedy. Perhaps it’s easiest to call it a painful tragedy, but it is far too funny to be called that.

The Big Short is getting much buzz for the Academy’s Best Picture award, and few would be surprised if it won, even fewer begrudging its merit to do so. It should be on everyone’s short list of can’t miss movies to see this year, and it would provide a perfect basis for a discussion of greed and materialism and their impact on American culture today.

Drew Trotter

December 29, 2015

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