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Clarence Ewing: The Million Year Trip writesThe Fourth Wall: The Big Short

[Welcome to the Fourth Wall, CHIRP's weekly e-conversation on cinema. This week's subject is the Adam McKay film The Big ShortThis edition is written by CHIRP Radio volunteers Kevin Fullam and Clarence Ewing.]

Clarence: Kevin, I watched The Big Short twice. In trying to form an opinion of it, I had to look up the word “ambivalent” to make sure I was using it correctly. Turns out I was. I am deeply ambivalent about this movie, and I can’t figure out exactly why.

A brief synopsis: The movie, based on the best-selling book by Michael Lewis, dramatizes events leading up to and immediately following the 2007-08 U.S. financial crisis where the housing market, once considered a bedrock of the economy, blew the F up as a result of Wall Street greed and incompetence.

Three separate groups of hedge fund managers (portrayed by a group of actors that includes Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, Brad Pitt, and Ryan Gosling) see the disaster coming and try to position themselves to make a ton of money by shorting (betting against) the value of the financial instruments they are convinced will soon be in the toilet. The story follows them as they encounter skepticism and ridicule from colleagues while discovering just how far the rot goes when it comes to high finance in the USA.

On the one hand, I think this is an entertaining film.  Most of the acting is strong. The movie captures very well the back-and-forth obnoxious behavior of young, paper-rich business people as they turn every conversation into a di*k-measuring contest. Bale and Carrell in particular are on point, playing bosses whose talent for making money means never having to learn how to be polite to or interact with others in a human way. I’ve had the misfortune of working with similar people in previous jobs. I do not miss it.

I found parts of the movie, especially the “explainer” segments where various celebrities like Margot Robbie and Anthony Bourdain appear to describe to the audience what a financial bubble or CDO is, to be a bit patronizing and unserious to the subject. Was director Adam McKay mocking the idea that “normal” people can’t follow financial ideas without them being delivered by a model or pop star, or does he really think that? Also, the character-narrator (Gosling's Jared Vennett) breaking the fourth wall to explain what was happening was too Goodfellas for me. Plus, there’s something missing from this film that I can’t put my finger on…yet.

But least there’s somebody out there trying to tell this story, right? What did you think of it? Did it work for you?

Kevin: Is The Big Short a well-acted/written/directed/edited movie? Sure! Grade-A work from all involved. But I'll put forth a couple theories as to why I suspect you felt ambivalent about it (as did I):

1) It's about events that are both recent and widely-publicized. The banking crisis is still fresh in everyone's minds, right? Even if we weren't too clued in on all the specifics, we've still heard gobs about it and know the basic story: bad mortgages + shady bankers = big chaos. Coincidentally enough, this film lost the 2016 Oscar race for Best Picture against another movie that had the same problem: Spotlight. Audiences might not have been privy to the Boston cases specifically, but everyone's heard reports about sexual abuse by Catholic priests during the past couple of decades.

There's a certain critical component of cinema which we all call "dramatic tension," and when you walk into a movie knowing exactly how things are going to play out... well, where's the tension? Conversely, take a biopic like Braveheart -- who the hell knew much about 13th-century Scotland? And fewer still had even heard of William Wallace, a figure plucked from the lore of the time, about whom few concrete details were known. A perfect canvas for Hollywood to create a tale where director Mel Gibson could just about embellish (or fabricate) anything he wanted.

2) It deals with the financial sector. It's no surprise that the film ratio of police/lawyers to accountants/programmers is roughly 1,000 to 1. Cops race around the city at high velocity, fire guns, and catch bad guys. Folks in finance watch graphs and numbers, and often are bad guys themselves. (The Big Short has protagonists, but certainly no heroes.) Not exactly an environment tailor-made for riveting drama. The financial crisis also recently brought us Inside Job and Margin Call -- both fine films, but quickly forgotten by this humble scribe. And would we remember Wall Street at all if not for Gordon Gekko's infamous "Greed is Good" speech?

[The one finance-related film that does still stick with me is Trading Places -- a 1983 Eddie Murphy vehicle which essentially was an updated version of The Prince and the Pauper. It's undoubtedly quite dated by now, and Wall Street was just a tool to get to the comedy, as opposed to being the focus of the story.]

There's the added problem of having the drama revolve around vast sums of money for seemingly-amoral folks who have willingly entered what is essentially a world of high-stakes gambling. Do we feel satisfaction in The Big Short when Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is vindicated at the conclusion, and walks away with hundreds of millions of dollars? I felt... nothing. And sure, there are some (including Burry) who wanted to bring to light the collusion between the banks and the financial ratings agencies -- but this interest in "serving the public good"  simply dovetailed with their bottom lines. Would they have cared otherwise?

As for the "explainer" segments -- well, yeah, they were gimmicks, but I don't necessarily think they were used because of a lack of respect for the audience. If you're buying a ticket to see this, you have to expecting some level of Wall Street legalese, but if you wanted the dry bones version, you'd likely be watching a documentary like Inside Job instead. Plus, there's the added challenge of explaining these concepts without a written text for the audience to peruse. So, I don't have a problem with the cameos.

Clarence, this film was billed as a "comedy-drama." I have a long and difficult history with what Hollywood deems as comedy (which I'd love to explore in a later discussion!), but I didn't even chuckle once here. I've laughed far more during a typical episode of The Sopranos or The Wire... but perhaps I should've derived far more enjoyment from Steve Carell's* antics, including his financial interrogation of strippers while they were pole-dancing? I'm often in the minority with regards to humor, though -- did that angle work for you here?

[* Ready to be bowled over? I just perused Carell's IMDB page, and this is the first time I've seen him in anything. Hey, I watched BBC's version of The Office! Not its Yankee counterpart...]

Clarence: I consider myself a moderate fan of Steve Carrell. I like the undercurrent of deadly seriousness he brings to his humor. I thought he did a great job with The Daily Show and a nice job with the U.S. version of The Office, a show that ultimately failed by not even trying to match the darkly comic bite of the UK original. The 40 Year Old Virgin is an underrated masterpiece.

The rest of his leading-man catalog? Meh. I feel that way about his role in The Big Short too. It's not his fault - he did a good job with what he was given. But even trying to humanize that character by going into his back story of personal tragedy doesn't prevent the shrill, one-dimensional nature of him from wearing thin.

I think your views are helping me figure out my ambivalence toward this film. It's plausible that the younger characters wouldn't have first-hand knowledge of Wall Street during the Dot-Com collapse of the late '90s, but the older ones would have. So it's not like corruption and lies would be something they are just waking up to in their chosen profession. Wall Street people up in arms over not being treated fairly certainly does come across as hollow.

You mentioned the lack of dramatic tension. I would add to it a lack of actual stakes for the characters' lives. One of the movie's key decisions involves Mark Baum (Carrell) -- he can hold off on executing an important trade and in doing so stick it to some other bankers and traders he loathes and would love to see suffer, or he can execute the trade and walk away with a billion dollars in profit. Hardly the kind of life-or-death decision faced by, say, the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath, another adaptation of a book based on American economic collapse.

One distinct feature of movies like Trading Places and Wall Street is that they have endings with consequences for the characters. Watching The Big Short it felt to me like, when all is said and done, the main characters involved were going to be just fine no matter what happened. I'm not sure what you would call that, but it's certainly not drama.

Throughout the movie the characters interact with various "regular" people like the stripper you mentioned, a couple of guys making a fast living writing bad loans, and a man whose family is about to be thrown out of a house he's renting because his landlord stopped paying the mortgage. Any of those characters' stories would have been more interesting to follow because, unlike the hedge-fund jockeys featured in the movie, their lives are going to change in important ways because of the crisis.

I feel like I'm veering toward an unsupportable axiom about filmmaking and story-telling about which I can speak only for myself. Kevin, In your experience, is an element of risk or change a requirement for a character to create tension or audience involvement? In a general sense, what does it take for you to care about what you see on screen?

Kevin: Well, Clarence, let me flip your question around: I can't think of any movie I loved that didn't involve uncertainty and an element of risk for its protagonist. (We're talking narrative fiction here; documentaries, especially historical ones, are a separate animal.) As far as what it takes for me to care about what I see on screen, we might be heading into Joseph Campbell's The Power of Myth territory with regards to Storytelling 101?

I'm spitballing here, but any protagonist has to be established with qualities that link the audience to them. Vito Corleone of The Godfather may have been a murderous criminal, but he was smart, dignified, and had a certain sense of chivalry despite his occupation. We root for intelligent characters over dumb ones -- but we also root for flawed, vulnerable characters whose shortcomings and temptations we can recognize in ourselves.

One of the reasons I never cared for The West Wing was that President Jeb Bartlet just seemed like *too* much of a White Knight (though clearly many didn't feel the same way). I'd much rather follow a compromised character such as Don Draper (Mad Men), precisely because his choices were much more interesting, and his failures hit closer to home.

Were any likable characters in The Big Short? The closest were the two young kids running a mom-and-pop operation out of Denver -- they were a bit endearing because they were nearly as clueless about the whole scene as the audience. But I think an even bigger issue with the film might've been the lack of any clear adversary. Who exactly were the Wall Street warriors battling here? The largely-faceless banks and credit agencies? The angry investors who wanted their money back when the early returns were less than auspicious? I don't know that it's necessarily a fault of the script -- it's more of a problem with the framework of the story in general. So here we have a well-written, well-acted film that suffers from a dearth of relatable characters, a lack of any clear adversary, and an absence of tangible risk. Hence our ambivalence! 

You mentioned the guy whose family was thrown out of their house at the conclusion of the film -- he wasn't in too bad a shape since he was only renting, right? The folks in 99 Homes (a 2014 film with Michael Shannon as a scheming property baron) were saddled with mortgages and thus on the hook for much, much more.  And not to get too political here, but... I dunno, it was hard for me to feel much sympathy for the victims of that film?  Clearly, banks were sleazily offering mortgages to people who couldn't afford them, but don't the customers also have to assume some culpability in living beyond their means?

See what The Big Short has done? Turned an exciting film blog into a rambling discussion about mortgages!


[Did you see the movie? Want to add to the conversation? Leave a comment below!]



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