More than thirty years have passed since I first saw Trading Places. I was probably no older than 9 or 10 the first time I saw it and at that time, Eddie Murphy laughing and Dan Aykroyd just being Dan Aykroyd was enough to make me laugh. Plus, let me be honest, I loved anything with a lot of cursing and occasional female toplessness when I was ten. (I assure you, I’ve grown up somewhat since then). Anyway, the point I’m sadly not getting to is that after all these decades after Louis Winthorpe III explained in the simplest possible terms what it meant to short a security, I have no idea. So my doubts about understanding or enjoying The Big Short were at about a 9.5 out of 10.
Let’s back up a few years, back to the movie that made me recognize Adam McKay as a filmmaker I admired in the first place. The movie was The Other Guys which looked like one of any number of random Will Ferrell movies designed to slapstick enough for foreign markets and highly-quotable enough for college freshmen. After I fell in love with The Other Guys (in particular Captain Gene and Christinith!!!), I started to realize that there is a really smart story happening between those zany ad-libbed scenes and repetitive comedic callbacks. And if it didn’t hit the viewer on the first viewing, a beautiful, easy-to-understand, PowerPoint presentation accompanied the closing credits.
But it wasn’t enough.
I always had this feeling that Adam McKay was kind of stuck doing goofy comedies because he is so brilliant at them. I imagine it would be difficult for him to sit with a potential producer to pitch a story only to get confused looks when the investor didn’t see the (non-existent) comedy angle. I imagine his situation was a lot like Michael Jordan’s when he first brought up the idea of leaving basketball for baseball while being arguably the greatest player in history and in his prime. McKay had other stories to tell and after watching The Other Guys for the fifteenth time, I had a suspicion of what that story would be. I guess the question was: would Adam McKay do as well with his decision to go into drama as Michael Jordan did with his to go into baseball?
Back to The Big Short…
Here is the genius of Adam McKay: he knows that several if not the vast majority of people in the United States are just like me. They’re people who cannot explain how the hell Winthorpe and Valentine got filthy rich while putting Randolph and Mortimer in the poor house. In fact, he understood how average working people who were convinced that buying a house was a completely obvious decision and made complete sense could fall prey to lenders seeking to profit off of bad mortgages. Given the complexity of the events leading up to the financial crisis of 2007, telling a compelling story that could also be somewhat easily understood by the general viewing public. Speaking as one of the people who would have no idea how to maximize the value of a Department of Agriculture orange crop report, I’d say he did a great job.
I have run into people who criticize the “gimmicky” techniques used to relay complicated information. It’s probably not a coincidence that the same people also criticize attacking the unfairly-maligned bankers who were victimized by the American working class. To recap this editing technique, basically whenever the story introduced a concept that could be considered difficult to grasp or was just plain unfamiliar to the audience, a fourth-wall breaking cut-scene, usually narrated by a celebrity playing themselves, would provide an analogous, layman’s-terms explanation. Although the first occurrence was admittedly jarring (Margot Robbie in a bubble bath), they became a welcomed contextual appendix that helped prevent drowsiness brought on by too many mentions of “tranches”, “prospectus”, and “CDOs”.
In the end, the true strength of the film was the topic itself which makes this not a film everyone would enjoy. The financial collapse was an event that happened in our recent history and affected billions of people. When the dust settled in its aftermath, there have been countless attempts to interpret how and why it happened; most people subscribing to the narrative that best fits the talking points of their chosen tribal-political affiliation. It would be somewhat naïve to say that The Big Short doesn’t present the story from a particular point-of-view, but even if you’re one who thinks that the events don’t adequately blame regular working people and is too hard on billionaires, The Big Short doesn’t assign “black hat/white hat” roles to any of the protagonists; there were no “heroes”. However, I have to confess: I loved the actors so much in this movie that the entire time I shamefully anticipated the moment when the market would crash and Steve Carrel, Christian Bale, and Ryan Gosling became rich. Anyway, to my surprise, The Big Short was Awesomely Good.