Overview: Three groups make investments against the housing market in anticipation of its collapse in a film based on the book of the same name by Michael Lewis. Paramount Pictures; 2015; Rated R; 130 Minutes.
Percision: It bothered me the first time I noticed, when a sharp cut of minor framing adjustment results in Margot Robbie picking up her champagne glass twice in short succession, in less than one second. The Big Short starts fast and good, its entertainment value, freshness, and intelligence build immediate momentum, far too much for Adam McKay’s movie to stumble over filmmaking errors of the sort. After a few more seeming mistakes, coming in the form of poorly cut dialogue, unaligned music cues, and frames moving off the mark at the wrong moment, I started to get the sense that I wasn’t watching errors, but borderline brilliant metaphoric filming and editing technique. The Big Short is a big and messy movie about a big and messy event. So, in witness of both the movie and its real-life narrative events, the audience is forced to subconsciously realize, “We are witnessing mistakes.”
True Story: Not only does McKay and his editing crew construct their movie so that it feels like a product of intentionally similar regulatory oversight, the director also employs his film’s status as a “true story” to shape his control over his audience and their experience. The film bluntly confesses some of its untrue representations; at one point, Jamie Shipley (John Magaro) looks directly into the camera to tell us that the current scene is fictional, and the real account is inserted mid-scene via monologue. At other times, the movie goes in the opposite direction and underlines its screen events as factual; Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) turns to tell the camera that a conference disruption from Mark Baum (Steve Carell) went down exactly as it is shown. This is all a reflective sales pitch, the movie’s dishonest form of marketing itself, the authorial voice of the film charming, confessing, earning our trust so it can gain our blind allegiance and then likely continue to lie when it needs to. The layers of manipulation in the movie echo the layers of manipulation, some of them entirely disconnected, that built the faulty economic model that collapsed on America in 2008.
The Right Guy for the Job: McKay shapes the film thusly because he wants to hold his audience accountable to a deserving degree. While The Big Short is scathing and livid in its assessment of the evil and stupidity from the banking, investment, insurance, federal regulation, and housing market that built the bubble under investigation, it holds the American people accountable in more muted, sarcastic, and implied terms. The Big Short‘s sympathy and allegiance lies with the average American, those of us who absorbed the damage of the housing market crash, but sympathy isn’t a synonym for exoneration. McKay unleashes hit songs at comically mismatched moments, decorates transition montages with iconic pop culture imagery, and begins each act with the sort of simplified title card aphorisms that should not be necessary to summarize a film this concise and smart. All of this serves as an indictment to the movie-going public’s general readiness for, or perhaps addiction to, being distracted.
McKay’s résumé to this point has been built almost exclusively of comedy vehicles for Will Ferrell and company. Here, he is evidently very pissed off and, at the same time, his voice is the funniest element of every scene, even when Gosling, Carell, Brad Pitt and company exhibit perfect comedic timing. As it turns out, McKay’s anger and cinematic free-spiritedness make him the perfect storyteller for this massively important topic to connect in an entertaining and informative manner.
Place in Cinematic History: It’s starting to feel like 2015 might be a milestone year, an exceptional era defined by its own unique voice and tone. Fury Road, Dope, Bone Tomahawk, Creed, and now, The Big Short are all films built from deconstructed elements of movie traditionalism reassembled into something refreshingly new, energetic, and charged. Everything good about the old has been restored and revamped for audiences who are smarter, more progressive, socially aware, and culturally complex.
Overall: The Big Short is a big deal. This movie should not be missed.