Friday, 26 February 2016

Who knew you could get so many laughs out of the downfall of the global economy?

It’s remarkable that The Big Short works as well as it does, really. Adam McKay’s financial crisis comedy takes an incredibly complex situation that very few people understand (and I'm not one of them) and explores it through a bunch of characters who are varying degrees of unlikeable – even Steve Carell and Brad Pitt’s characters, the only two who point out how morally detestable everything is, are, respectively, a rude loudmouth and a paranoid delusional.

But it launches itself at its central issue with such energy and self-awareness that it’s difficult not to get absorbed into it, even if you don’t follow everything - when Carell’s Mike Baum points out that Wall Street deliberately use complex terminology in order to make it difficult for them to be scrutinised, it’s in a way reassuring that the film is aware of its own complexities and is using them as part of its point.  I’m still not entirely sure what a lot of the companies shown in the film actually do, but I’m more sure than I was going in. The cutaways – “to explain this issue, here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath”, etc. – do a good job of making it all a bit more accessible while continuing the satire on this macho world (though if you read that particular cutaway as sexist, I can understand - the fact that a major female character from the book was cut out is the more grating problem for me).

It’s a very funny film, with not only a superb gag referencing David Lynch’s Dune but several examples of meta-humour much better than that seen in Deadpool (an odd comparison, maybe, but I’ve seen them both this week, and they do both have a lot of fourth-wall breaking) – one character turning to camera and admitting that a scene has been changed from what really happened for dramatic effect, for example. There is a sense that the meta-humour, as well as the documentary-esque camerawork, is a distancing device to distract from the fact that the characters are all so unlikeable, but it's one that did work to hook me into the film's world, if not its specific characters.

It’s also a very frustrating film, albeit deliberately so. You’ll be left angry at how the crisis was allowed to happen, and how the same practices which caused it continue today. It does sometimes seem odd to be following people who predicted the crash and yet profited from this prediction – a more typical approach may be to follow characters trying to stop it (there is one disturbing and memorable scene where the two younger characters try to take their discoveries to a financial reporter, and he turns them away because running the story would destroy his links with Wall Street). But this approach ties in to the film’s point – the culture of fraud and stupidity was so ingrained into Wall Street that the crisis could not have been prevented.

It’s a frustrating truth, which The Big Short captures excellently. Your appreciation of McKay’s unconventional satire will be decided by how much you’re willing to be simultaneously angered and amused by its take on this truth.


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