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The viewer is the only character that matters in The Big Short

Photo: Paramount
Photo: Paramount

On Sunday, February 28, the Academy will honor the previous year in cinema with a slew of awards, waiting until the end of the night to bestow Best Picture on one of eight nominees. Leading up to the ceremony, we’re posting a piece a day on each of these major Oscar contenders.

Perhaps the most divisive aspect of The Big Short, one of the most divisive entries in this year’s crop of Best Picture nominees to begin with, is the film’s rib-elbowy habit of breaking the fourth wall. The opportunists scrambling to make a fortune while the bad guys lost theirs will occasionally take a moment to reassure the viewer directly that what is happening onscreen is purely factual, or confess to fudging it a bit. On other occasions, celebrities will make impromptu appearances to clarify complex macroeconomic concepts, often using extended analogies. Some have bristled at McKay’s bolder stylistic flourishes, and indeed, they can leave a lasting impression that smacks of smugness, though Ryan Gosling’s hairdo doesn’t help matters.

But there’s more than hollow slickness motivating McKay’s approach. Though his methods may rub his critics the wrong way, the star-studded illustrative digressions and momentary asides to the crowd serve a loftier function than pseudo-cool narrative shaft-stroking. Detractors charge McKay with serving up all flash with no substance, but in the volatile world of high finance, where unstable concepts are sold for money that only exists in theory, flash is its own sort of substance.

It’s not hard to see why the meta curlicues involving Selena Gomez shooting craps, Anthony Bourdain whipping up a fish stew, and Margot Robbie enjoying two kinds of bubbly could rub some the wrong way. These in-your-face gestures are fully deliberate on McKay’s part, their casual smoothness anything but incidental. The tone McKay adopts during these moments speaks volumes about the most important character of all, one who never appears on screen but on whom the film’s entire long con hinges: us, the assumed dupes who fell for all of this typhoon of bullshit and then took the brunt of its aftereffects.

The Big Short has a very specific characterization in mind when it comes to what sort of person sits down to see The Big Short. It’s worth noting that all of the digressions are instructive, rather than expressive; while Shakespearean characters would often use momentary asides as opportunities to externalize their inner workings, the parties speaking to the audience here only ever provide them with directives on how to interpret the events depicted in the film. All of the talk is directed in a downward fashion, with the characters boiling down esoteric fiscal jargon into deceptively facile symbols. The presumed viewer of The Big Short is dim-witted, slow, and easily distracted by bright, shiny, sexy things. McKay’s approach is clearly satirical, turning the viewers into the same idiots that the wads responsible for this unnatural disaster took them for. The slight note of condescension in Ryan Gosling’s voice as he verbally claps us on the shoulder and swears on his life that what we’re seeing is 100 percent true clarifies his regard for the audience. We’re the slack-jawed tourists they’re dragging through a messy and bustling world, our ignorance mostly getting in their way.

Unless, that is, it’s working to their benefit. The Big Short refers to the in-bounds economic long con that the collective protagonists of the film pull on the avaricious bankers who take and take and take some more, the sharks with hair gel pawning bum real-estate deeds on folks who didn’t know better, and the rest of the intricate network of corruption ensnaring governmental officials as well as independent stock-trading institutions. But McKay uses just as much deception and questionable deck-stacking in his breakneck relation of Michael Lewis’ densely technical text, targeting the viewer with a hatful of narrative tricks.

Explanations make up most of the film’s 130 minutes. Ryan Gosling’s slimy bond salesman Jared Vennett carefully breaks his elevator pitch down for perpetually irate hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) step by step, even going so far as to use clearly labeled Jenga blocks to communicate his predictions for the market’s downturn. A self-destructive gambit like this is certainly news to Baum, but Vennett’s really explaining this to the dumb-dumbs in the audience who can’t tell an IRA from the IRA. In The Wolf Of Wall Street, a film impossible not to compare to this one, Jordan Belfort would make the rare motion to sort out the professional shenanigans of Stratton Oakmont, but shrug off those efforts in a bitterly satirical barb from director Martin Scorsese. McKay won’t let it go so easily, piling on tongue-twisting monologues about the tempestuous shifts of the U.S. economy. He italicizes, underlines, and boldfaces the heinous miscarriages of commerce that precipitated the housing crisis—at one point, the U.S. Securities And Exchange Commission quite literally gets in bed with Wall Street.

This abundance of admittedly laborious explanation is a big part of what’s endeared McKay’s film to wider audiences and made it a frontrunner for Oscar consideration. The film has been touted as a crucial learning aid, mandatory viewing for anyone not sufficiently outraged over the gross crimes for which the fat cats still haven’t answered. The issue-movie edge usually goes to a softly hewn drama about someone succumbing to or overcoming a social disadvantage (last year’s Selma and The Imitation Game fit the bill), but McKay’s jittery speedball of an econ lecture has successfully asserted itself as the most relevant of this year’s slate of candidates. On my social-media feed, the odd Bernie supporter has even posited the film as a lethally effective campaign commercial, waking up anyone still sleeping on the unchecked greed that’s been allowed to flourish and choke out American stability.

The Big Short, however, is a work of unadulterated entertainment that sells itself as an expository text. For one, the haste with which McKay plows through information means that the rate of retention for any of these nuanced economic lessons will be perilously low. (Seriously, challenge anyone who’s seen The Big Short in the past week to explain what, exactly, happened. I will be the first to admit that I am not capable of doing this.) But what’s more, this anti-big-money screed finishes not on a note of revolution, but of deep and bitter cynicism that leads nowhere. Forget a brighter tomorrow. McKay’s cruelest joke, the same punch line he nicked from Scorsese’s motivational-speech finale in The Wolf Of Wall Street, is that even with all this scandalizing knowledge and newfound fury, the mark on this whole con is powerless to do anything about it. That’s what makes it such a perfect crime—even when the responsible parties were outed as everything came tumbling down, they were snugly insulated from any legal retribution. As the invisible subjects of The Big Short and its big short, we’re free, even encouraged to arm ourselves with knowledge and share in Baum’s disgust at the orgy of misconduct playing out right under our noses. “Fraud has never ever worked,” Baum declares late in the film. “Eventually, things go south.” True as this may be, the tacit implication is that there’s a very good reason men have kept trying. Even when the market bottomed out, the crash’s architects had a landing cushion stuffed with money.

McKay paints Baum and Christian Bale’s Dr. Mike Burry as tragic figures mistreated by the random misfortunes of life, but the most compelling character in The Big Short is the schlub in the recliner at home, scarfing Milk Duds and cursing America’s market-based economy. A protagonist with no screen time; a hero with zero agency; a scrappy underdog who loses, hard, without the possibility of winning in the near future. The viewer is a little like Emily Blunt’s agent in Sicario, railing impotently against a system much larger and sturdier than she can fully comprehend. We’re all stooges in the banks’ rigged carnival game, handing over our own money for a minute’s worth of empty thrills. The morally compromised carnival barker McKay draws us in with jittery camerawork and celebrity cameos, but all that awaits us is trickery and disappointment.

Now, here to mitigate those feelings of disappointment and frustration: a video of a pug eating a cheez curl!