Review of The Big Short (2015)

Moving picture, 130 minutes

Seen in 2020.

Starting in 2005, three groups of people use novel financial instruments to bet that there is a bubble in the US housing market and that it’s going to pop in 2007.

Between this and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), this is definitely the better meditation on the 2008 financial crisis. It is better insofar as it deals directly with the subject, explains a few of the relevant mechanisms like Inside Job (2010), and takes a broader view of the consequences of malfeasance. It is significantly less comedic and less glamorous, though it does have jokes and one pair of titties. The actors are better in Short, Pitt being particularly self-effacing as stars go, and it is ultimately more absorbing, but it does more than Wolf to break the fourth wall.

Like Wolf, Short uses a ruthless, rent-seeking on-screen character as a narrator, and occasionally pauses the action or freezes the frame for such narration, but Short adds several more breakages: Other characters also address the camera—in one case saying nothing else—and random celebrities are roped in to sex up the summaries of financial concepts, with mixed success. At one point, a narrator lies and retracts his lie, recalling F for Fake (1973). At another moment, a character admits that things didn’t really happen a particular way in reality. Superimposed captions add additional authorial commentary and chaotic Spike Lee-style montages of contemporary media set the scene. These tricks seem to be motivated in large part by the need to connect back to reality, not for Brechtian purposes so much as to stake out a claim to relevance.

The celebrity explanations are tongue in cheek, knowingly cynical about the audience’s knowledge and attention span. This rhetorical mode became prominent on Reddit’s r/wallstreetbets, where this film had totemic status in the 2021 GME frenzy. One of the celebrity explanations includes an expert. This choice of tone is ultimately a good one, but the material would have been fine worked into a more straight-faced illusionistic script, with an extradiegetic narrator and lingo interpreter laying out the journalistic work of identifying the characters and the distortions of fiction.

moving picture fiction