Flippant, self-consciously ingenuous, vacantly screwball-y, the caper film credentials are plastered all over The Big Short’s snazzy, flash-in-the-pan cinematography and relatively rudimentary bag of metatextual tricks. It’s a little like Great Recession fast food, although its overweening sense of “cool” calls back to the mid-’90s glut of post-Tarantino provocateurs with a camera. For the vast majority of its run-time, Adam McKay (of the Will Ferrell, internet comedy school of modern filmmaking) and co-writer Charles Randolph are not especially vexed by their total and complete disregard for the casualties and consequences of a crisis that can never fully be contained, or explained, in a single film, so for most of the run-time, they don’t even try.
Which is probably bad morality, but it doesn’t guarantee antiseptic cinema. For better or worse, Hollywood has relied on tragedy as the girders of grandly architectural cinematic entertainment for nearly a century, and if there’s a disingenuous nature to a cotton-candy approach, then a morose, ultra-serious tone doesn’t exactly wash away the failings of cinema or any art to truly capture tragedy as a lived experience either. No film can legitimately treat the tremors of life with the gravity they deserve; even when they inform us of their seriousness, bubble-wrapped films like 12 Years a Slave or Schindler’s List can’t but construct their tales around, for instance, the African-Americans and Jews who lived through unknown tragedy, rather than those who died under its wake. Films cannot raise the dead, even if they wear a necromancer’s cloak.
Although the question will likely remain forever intangible and unsolvable, a case forms for cinema that doesn’t even bother to insist on or imply its ability to truthfully expose the complexity and contradictory complication of history or experience at all; such films instead inhabit a realm of honest dishonesty, necessarily reflecting the ways in which even the most troubled and tormented “serious” films only convince us to believe that they are truly reflecting experience, rather than actually revealing it. Rephrased in the vernacular of the high school post-modernism of The Big Short, “films aren’t reality, so why bother pretending they are?”
Call it facile or amoral, but there’s a tang of truth to a film that legitimately and filmically interrogates the limits of cinema to construct experience. The trouble with The Big Short is that, while it exhibits an ounce (but no more) of this spitfire ingenuity, it is also incessantly culpable in the crime of pedantry. In other terms, a work of pop-economics is necessarily perched at the intersection of cataclysm and carnival, and The Big Short hasn’t the slightest whisp of a clue how to remove itself from the calamity that ensues at that fork in the road. Rather than pursuing one direction, it tries to ride two horses – the glib and the earnest – inconstantly, and the ramshackle, moldy-wooded wheels of its cart fall off before it gets anywhere with its own internal contradictions. The vaguely ironic oxymoron in the title is indicative of the central incertitude of the film itself; it wishes to be both grand and intimate, anthropological and personal, momentarily enthralling and fitfully educational. In the end, it only proves elusive.
Adapted from Michael Lewis’s book of the same name, The Big Short earns a point or two for perspiration, rushing from moment to moment and breaking so much sweat trying to involve its audience in material it never truly trusts we care about. In context, the self-serving swerves into sincerity (mostly near the end) feel profoundly disingenuous in light of the film’s otherwise madcap distrust of its own audience. The drama the film implicates itself in, particularly in sub-plots surrounding a mercurial, never-better Steve Carrell and a sullen Brad Pitt, is a self-aggrandizing , diaphanous layer of stuck-up moralizing ( I won’t go into too much detail about the individual characters or stories; that would be giving the film too much credit). It’s no secret that the filmmakers desperately hope the film’s sidetreks into tragedy will wash away the taste of the screenplay’s frivolousness; instead, the speechifying only reminds how contested the film really is about how to treat its material.
Part of the problem is that the film’s tricks never veer too far from the surface; the trouble with the post-Tarantino irony is that most of the filmmakers who adhere to it are mainstream welterweights whose surface-level idiosyncrasies never settle into the core of their beings. Much like suburban youths reared on Eminem and Jay-Z, these filmmakers pine for rebellion and youthful zest, but the apple never falls too far from the tree; these people are still products of mainstream institutions, and their films never sway too far from Hollywood convention after all. The Big Short is still trite Oscarbait, irony or no, and least most Oscarbait is a little more earnest about the saccharine strings being pulled in the background
One gathers that The Big Short’s most ostentatious, signature gesture – stopping itself dead in its tracks while a celebrity husk is carted out to demonstratively reduce financial jargon to human terms – is a swipe at itself. Yet in criticizing its own investment in chic celebrity couture and its shotgun-fired amelioration of fiery fallout with cool blue, easily-digestible cinematic jazz, the film also condescends vociferously and then has the nerve to sit down for story-time and teach us a message in the process. Seldom has Hollywood felt so palpably self-satisfied in its self-imposed superiority to its audience. You cannot, as the old saying I just made up goes, be a preacher and a stand-up comic at the same time.