by Niles Schwartz
In a 1990 interview with David Lynch, David Breskin asked if the filmmaker, hot off Twin Peaks, had ever heard of the “Moment of Shit.” Lynch was interested to know what it was. “The ‘Moment of Shit,'” Breskin replied, “is what TV writers call it when everything comes together, and you have that edifying moment, when you are supposed to get the Message, and the Morality comes across…”
Breskin was complimenting Lynch on how Twin Peaks had “turned the fan on all that” with its more offbeat approach to TV. I bring it up here because the Moment of Shit, when it hits the fan and the audience can see below the detritus of conflict, is running throughout the whole of Adam McKay’s surprisingly well-received true-life satire The Big Short, based on the Michael Lewis (Moneyball) bestseller about a handful of credit default swap players who, simply by doing the math, forecast the 2008 economic collapse. An estimable ensemble of eccentrics–played by Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Finn Witrock, John Magaro–guides us through the inevitable bubble burst of obscene wealth, where lines between absurdity, stupidity, and fraud swirl into a scrumptious cone of wealth.
And yet the winding curve around every of The Big Short‘s avenues breaks away from the absurd and into lucidity, that is to say several Dulcolax worth of Shit Moments, where the perpetrators break down and give our investigating agents the lowdown as if they’re quoting full paragraphs from a pretty well-written bestselling book (the film’s recent swath of awards for screenwriting is kind of perplexing). McKay and his writing partner Charles Randolph sometimes break away from the action and shoe-horn in chuckle-chuckle celebrity cameos like Margot Robbie (in a tub, of course–sure, that’ll get your attention!), Anthony Bourdain, and Selena Gomez, looking into the screen and explaining how the befuddling market works. I’m not sure if this is going to ferment an enlightened public, as all of these moments feel so telepromptered for the performers and patronizing to the audience (not because of the content, but because of the focus on celebrity–“don’t take my recommendation, listen to naked Margot Robbie!”), but I guess it sure lets you know where the movie stands and where we can assume our poise for the next big reveal and Michael Moore-ish revelation of funny-sad duplicity.
An opening montage going from the late ’70s up through the new millennium and ending at the bubble burst establishes a spirit of quick-cutting flashiness with politics and entertainment spliced together: we see Reagan/Bush, the Blues Brothers, Basquiat, the Berlin Wall, Borat, and finally Bear Stearns. Banking, “a fucking snooze” in the ’70s, now has its players partying in strip clubs and running the world, as the vulgar narration by Gosling, who plays the film’s avatar of amorality, Jared Vennett, informs us. The whip-bang style, much like those upcoming celebrity cameos, feels so calculated that what we see feels like whiffy posturing more than formally adventurous truth-telling. The edgy approach of having cinematographer Barry Ackroyd capture this world with the hand-held zooms of the Bourne movies trips up in the execution; instead of grave geopolitical stakes, it all comes across as something like The Office or The League.
Vennett steps back to introduce our leads: hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Bale), who works in his jammies, listens to death metal, and is hella discerning, even though he has a glass eye; Mark Baum (Carell), a high pressure do-gooder who hijacks his group therapy sessions to voice frustrations with unethical banks and their pernicious overdraft fee practices; and college buddies Jamie Shipley and Charlie Geller (Witrock and Magaro), seeking the guidance of a slightly paranoid financial wizard who’s stepped out of the game because of its treachery, Ben Rickert (Pitt).
All are somewhat presented as cartoons and it’s fun to watch Bale and Carell have free rein hamming it up, as ironically the status quo embodies the wacky system and the goofs see things as they are. These fellows aren’t augurs but are simply doing the math and laying out certainties while Alan Greenspan, the voice meant to relax us and let us know things are just fine, is dead wrong. Shit is happening as “everyone is walking around like they’re in an Enya video,” to quote of the film’s great lines (and giving credit to McKay, this film is full of them, particularly a line referencing “the bad guy from Dune” that wrecked me with delight).
Our heroes dig deeper, having humorous-then-sad episodes with victims of the housing bubble, dudebro douchebag market dealers who giggle with glee on profiting off immigrants, and the financial analysts indiscriminately marking clients with the AAA approval rating (this episode lays on the symbolism thickly, Melissa Leo wearing her post-dilation glasses to reference the system’s willful blindness). Landlords aren’t paying their mortgages and pools are filled with alligators. Homes are debts and not assets, as their values go up but middle class wages stay even.
As “2+2 = Fish” is laid out in these encounters, the confessions come quickly, as in, “You got me. This is what’s happening. It’s the way of the world. Now listen! [Followed by apparent quotation from a Michael Lewis book.]” The Moments of Shit come not only regarding the backwards system, but then the morality of it all. Vennett, Burry, Baum, Shipley, and Geller all stand to make hundreds of millions if the bubble bursts, while civilization itself crumbles. It’s the elephant in the room that, in The Wolf of Wall Street, was pushed to a blurry periphery as that film reveled in the debauchery and excesses of greed, an approach that’s brilliant and brutal because the picture understood the nature of vice. Naturally several critics decried it precisely because it never acknowledged the victims of fraud (any more than Dr. Strangelove showed victims of nuclear devastation), and it’s on this same ground that some have celebrated The Big Short. But these guys are much too conscientious to not be thinking about this from the get-go, so when Brad Pitt finally chides his proteges for embracing the way “banking reduces people to numbers” and the morality is spoken, it feels like a pat Western Union message. McKay then gives us hushed images of the homeless under bridges, a sober moment of collective shame that once again takes off the mask of satire and covers us in shit, while never really suggesting any complicity.
There’s a lot of good faith going into The Big Short, as McKay is breaking out of his box as a talented voice behind Saturday Night Live digital shorts and several Will Farrell comedies under the auspices of Judd Apatow (the Anchorman movies, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers). Political topicality has been a simmering to a welcome boil in his work, financial corruption becoming central to his last film, the Farrell/Mark Wahlberg buddy comedy The Other Guys, where streetwise cartel fighting policing tiptoes toward suspect bank accounts. McKay helmed Farrell’s HBO Broadway show, You’re Welcome, America, a George W. Bush lampoon that was sometimes great, sometimes running on fumes, and once in a while crashed to Earth to make its somber statement about some of Bush II’s detrimental actions. Departing comedic efficiency for true-life scale and ambition makes sense for McKay, whose Anchorman 2 was a dud sequel in truncated PG-13 theatrical release, but I found exhilarating as an unrated long-form (140-minute) indictment of Big Media.
In his comic heroes McKay masterfully gave us a per-Millennial character type, the entitled bubble-encased myopic Man Child exemplifying the Dubya Era. In this sense, 2008’s Step Brothers, one of the best comedies of the aughts, is not only funnier than The Big Short but also leagues more incisive about malignant social symptoms, as two perpetual adolescents (Farrell and John C. Reilly) mount their “Bros ‘n Ho’s” dream at the expense of the previous generation’s accomplishments.
The Big Short has McKay leaping from farce into the racket of prestige filmmaking, and most everyone approves. Yet while retaining his sense of humor, his entrance into seriousness has grotesque, even (I’m sorry) Jason Reitmanesque, self-importance and congratulation. With its topical frosting, The Big Short feels like that Facebook friend always posting memes of political sentiments with which you already agree, but for 130 minutes. And like that ostentatious online pal emphatically hollering they be heard, there’s a concluding sentiment of “We’re all fucked anyway,” so while the film’s problems may follow you out of the theater, there’s nothing there to spark any psychic struggle. Like an online meme, its smug notes won’t really enact social change and subjective exploration, while its fantasy alternative ending will at least allow some dirty catharsis.
Indulging in comparison, another market bubble movie with which The Big Short should be compared is Oliver Stone’s oft-derided Wall Street sequel, Money Never Sleeps (2011). Like Stone’s W., which was far removed from the epic cerebral fever-dream of Nixon, Money Never Sleeps was dopey, seemingly benign, warming us up with smiling David Byne and Brian Eno pop songs (which one local reviewer, who I don’t think knew it was Byrne and Eno, summarily scoffed at as being cheesy). But as with W., where the form mirrored the smiling and tragic simplicity of the president (just as Stone did with Nixon), the “everything’s fine” veneer of Money Never Sleeps is why it remains interesting to me, anticipating another bubble burst and set in a robot-motion world that has already undergone an apocalypse, though its inhabitants refuse to see it. The Big Short probably has the stuff of a great movie satire, but it’s much too certain that you’ll all recognize it as such, buying you a drink, telling you a good joke, and then reminding you how everything’s stupid and plain sucks before sending you on your way with its own confident dude-bro salute.