The Mad Men of Wall Street

Film review: The Big Short (Director: Adam McKay)

By Sascha Krieger

In 2008, the American dream imploded: A financial system built on greed and deception collapsed. As a result, millions of people lost their homes and jobs, while the big banks who caused the crisis are – with the exception of a couple of investment banks that went bankrupt – more powerful than ever and no bankers, at least in the U.S. ever went to jail. As of now, the lessons from 2008 are long forgotten and another round of deregulation the financial sector has already begun. Even some of the most toxic asset categories that were instrumental in producing the crash, have returned, albeit under different names. So far two major films have attempted to deal with the financial crisis: One, J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call succeeded as a claustrophobic chamber drama focusing on a single night in the heart of darkness, the other, Oliver Stone’s Wall Street sequel failed as a pseudo-Shakespearean tragedy about human hubris, greed and stupidity. Adam McKay, until now known as the creator of quirky entertainment fare such as Anchorman and Step Brothers, has now unleashed another take on what happened: The Big Short is a wild, grotesque attempt at not only showing the madness that was unleashed but also embodying it in its very structure and imagery.

© Paramount

Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling (© Paramount)

The Big Short tells the story of a few investment bankers who, years before the crash, discovered that the U.S. housing market was fraudulent, that it was based on bad mortgages and that it would ultimately collapse, triggering an avalanche that could destroy the entire financial and economic system of the U.S. and beyond. So what do bankers do when they see that? They try to make money. So, they, independently of each other start betting against the housing market. The greed that produced the system is more than present in those alert enough to see the apocalypse coming. The Big Short is a film devoid of heroes: Christian Bale plays a genius fund manager with Asperger’s who refuses to consider the possibility that he might be wrong (which in fact, he isn’t) but who doesn’t think for a moment about trying to use his knowledge to prevent the crash (which he wouldn’t have succeeded in). Steve Carell plays another fund manager who hates the system and is angry at the world, a loudmouth who, however, loves milking the system. He teams up with Jason Vennett (Ryan Gosling as a sleazy, vengeful, cold-blooded banker) who introduces him to what’s happening on the housing market. Then there are two young investors trying to get to Wall Street and mentored by a stoical ex-trader who despises the banking industry but plays it perfectly to help out his young neighbours. White knights are nowhere to be seen, the antagonists of the systems are part of it, too, driven by the same Ambitions and goals. So while some of them, particularly Carell’s characters and the two „rookies“ end up having doubts, they still play the game. There is no catharsis as there hasn’t been in real life.

The madness of greed is not only the film’s topic, it is its basic principle. McKay has created a 130-minute video clip, a collage-style rollercoaster ride full of still image clips from the heyday of the bubble and its aftermath, news snippets, black spaces, written explanations and those delivered by celebrity chefs or pop singers. It is constantly jumping back and forth between protagonists who repeatedly address the audience directly, breaking the illusion of fiction. The Big Short is biting satire that can be hilariously funny, especially with Carell’s loudmouth character Mark ranting against everything and everybody, as well as gut-wrenchingly revealing, particular in its key sequence when Mark travels to Florida to take a close look at the market and its dealings and receives a lap dance from a stripper with five houses and a condo, all financed through mortgages. As good as Margin Call was in describing the inner workings of a financial industry that had become detached from the real world, it revealed little about what actually caused the crisis we suffered in 2008.

The Big Short does that and in more than one way. Firstly, it explains the snowball character of the dealings that lead to the crash – in dialogue, with written explanations and in hilarious explanatory scenes and sketches. Secondly, it shows the dealers in action on all levels: from a man making millions from managing toxic assets to those on the ground selling risky mortgages to anyone who’ll buy. It shows greed in action with everyone involved. Thirdly, and possibly most importantly, its wild collage-technique, its camera work and narrative technique that changes back and forth between documentary-style clarity, grotesque satire and high-paced drama and that seems to be close to spinning out of control again and again, embody the spiral of greed, the madness of making millions in a minute, the insanity of a society that lost touch long ago. The Big Short is a wild ride, embodying the feverish atmosphere of the devil’s dance that was the financial industry pre-2008 and which it’s becoming again right now. It tells us a lot about what happened and it shows and makes us feel how it could happen. So , the audience leave the theater smarter – and angrier. Because it is ultimately anger that fuels the film, anger at a system built on irresponsibility and a society  that let –  and is letting – it do its damage without control. Mark’s anger is and should be ours. Let’s hope that our conclusions aren’t the same.

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