The Big Short

Poetic Justice On The Silver Screen
The Big Short Movie Review

Rob Williams, PhD

University of Vermont

“The truth is like poetry. And most people fucking hate poetry.”

– Overheard in a Washington, D.C. bar by Michael Lewis; Author of The Big Short

Take stupendous Wall Street corruption and near-global-economic meltdown. Add a 2008 Michael Lewis expose (The Big Short) that literally blows the roof off the corrupt joint. Mix in an all-star cast and the storytelling genius of Adam McKay, former Saturday Night Live head writer-turned-Hollywood director who has brought us such Will Ferrell-fronted Hollywood masterpieces as “Anchorman” (1 and 2), “Step Brothers,” “Talladega Nights,” and “The Other Guys.” What do you get? One of the best movies of this past year – a sort of “art meets life” docu-comedic re-enactment of the 2008 subprime-mortgage crisis that brought the U.S. economy to its knees and almost bankrupted the world.

I know what you’re thinking. How could a Hollywood movie about Wall Street corruption be at all interesting? McKay shows us the way, by combining a documentary feel with moments of black humor, screwball comedy, and “you won’t believe what happens next” storytelling. Beyond McKay’s street cred as an insightful funny man, it helps to have an epic cast full of sexy dudes playing against type. Marvel at barefoot metal drummer-cum-M.D. Michael Burry (a mesmerizing Christian Bale) and his tenacious anti-social stock market data-crunching. Crack up at trader Mark Baum (a riveting Steve Carell), who delivers a combination of blow-hard narcissism and funky fragility. Do a double take at Ben Rickert’s strange appeal as a former inside trader turned survivalist (oh, right – it’s Brad Pitt.) And marvel at the endearingly rogue’ish narrative voice of Ryan Gosling’s Jared Vennett, the guy who saw the mortgage collapse coming before almost anyone – and isn’t afraid to try and make millions betting against the integrity of a System everyone believes to be structurally sound– until It collapses.

And did I mention Margo “Wolf Of Wall Street” Robbie naked in a hot tub with a glass of champagne explaining how ARM subprime mortgages and tranche’ing work? Or Mouseketeer-turned actress/pop diva Selena Gomez in Vegas walking us through collateralized debt obligations (CDOs)? McKay’s movie is full of seemingly random moments such as these, sticky scenes that provide comic relief, educate us, and force us to pay attention to the unfolding debacle that was the subprime mortgage crisis. Anyone who has read Michael Lewis’ remarkable retelling knows what a high bar he sets as a narrator. And yet, McKay delivers – you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll throw things. And oddly, you might find yourself in the position of rooting for the guys in this story who cynically bet against the System and win, making stupendous amounts of money as the World comes crashing down around them, all the while wrestling with the moral dilemmas that accompany their “big short.” It’s an apt movie metaphor for what Baum/Carell calls “Fraud America.” Fourteen million homeless and jobless Americans later, the U.S. government under newly-elected Democratic president Barack Obama bailed out the “too big to fail” banks on the American taxpayer’s very big dime, and only ONE Wall Street executive did any jail time for the fraud that impacted millions of people around the world.

Welcome to the U.S. of Empire. We need more writers like Lewis and filmmakers like McKay who will comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable, and tell it like it is. Don’t miss this movie, an appalling and amazing adventure into the world of high finance – and bring a friend or three. You’ll have much to discuss afterwards – and investors, beware the “bespoke CDO.”

Rob Williams, PhD, is a professor of media, global studies, and communications in the Burlington, Vermont area. He teaches at the University of Vermont, Champlain College, and Saint Michael’s College, has authored numerous articles on critical media literacy education, lectures around the world, and is currently the board co-president of the Action Coalition for Media Education (ACME). His most recent book, for which he served as co-editor, is Media Education for a Digital Generation (Routledge, 2016). 

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