Steve Carell and co. all yell at Ryan Gosling in The Big Short.

A look at ‘The Big Short’ and its use of pop culture imagery

With Adam McKay’s (director of Anchorman and Step BrothersThe Big Short landing on DVD, Blu-Ray, and online streaming services last week, I decided to take a second look at it, my mind having warmed up to it in the months that followed my initial viewing. This is not to say I disliked it first or that I dislike it now. But I do find it to be a cluttered clash of tones, moods, and imagery that lacks strong character arcs, though it does offer an informed perspective on the housing crash of 2008 that is accessible to the layman. The most fun element of The Big Short though is it’s clever use of meme-like internet pop culture imagery to explain highly sophisticated and dull banking concepts. Clips, soundbites, and breaking the forth wall pop-up constantly throughout the film, disrupting and jarring the viewer as if they are flipping the channels or surfing the web.

But before I jump into that aspect of The Big Short, to quickly describe the narrative, the manager of a hedge fund, Michael Burry (Christian Bale), notices that the housing market is held up by terrible motgages that are going to fail in the second quarter of 2007. He starts shorting the banks on these mortgages all over town. Banker Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) takes notice but can’t get his own bank to back the gamble, so he seeks out hedge funds. When trying to call one, he hit the wrong phone number and landed with a wild card fund run by a very angry man named Mark Baum (Steve Carell).

Baum is the kind of man who has had some tragedy in his life and chooses to simultaneously bottle it up and take it out on the whole world. He wants to watch the world burn. So when Vennett strolls into his office saying that all these people Baum considers to be horrible crooks have made a serious mistake and he might be able to profit on it, he gets thrilled.

Margot Robbie in a bubble bath:

Long story short, Baum, Burry, and a pair of kids from Colorado end up taking the high stakes gamble and discovering on the road to their big payout that the system may be a lot more corrupt than they initially thought and that the cost of their big win may be the jobs and well-being of millions of people not just across America, but overseas as well. This causes The Big Short to leave a bitter taste in the mouth of most viewers. It is supposed to. This is an angry Bernie Sanders rant that condemns the bankers while forcing its protagonists to reckon with themselves that they too are a part of this dirty corporate world.

All of that is fine and dandy. And If I stopped there I just may have convinced myself that The Big Short is a great film. But there are a lot of problems at the script level when it comes to both dialogue and story structure. To be fair, this is a tough non-fiction book by Michael Lewis to adapt and its primary subject is banking, so this is a tough film to make. But where it fails isn’t overcoming that challenge. That is actually the area of the film’s biggest success. But more on that later. The central issues are simple exchanges and the lack of character arcs. This is a little ironic considering the film’s only Oscar night victory was for the screenplay.

The only character that the screenplay even tries to apply an arc to is Mark Baum. His issue is learning to talk about his brother’s suicide, which he failed to help prevent. His repression of this causes him to feel like he needs to fix everything that is wrong with the world in order to somehow make up for his former shortcoming. This is okay, I guess. But it’s bluntly spelled out in a phone call with his wife that serves no other purpose than exposition. Then it is ignored for a vast majority of the film until the banking narrative starts to wrap up. And finally it is brought back up with his wife in a cheap way that tries unsuccessfully to tie his issues with his brother to his realization of just how fucked up the world really is. It doesn’t make much sense because we don’t feel a gradual change or even a meaningful revelation when it comes to his brother. I do not understand how seeing that ratings agencies can be bought helps you come to terms with a family suicide.

Anthony Bourdain in The Big Short:

Then there is Michael Burry, who I don’t see anything I would call an arc with, but possibly an incoherent theme? What I’m talking about here is, for one reason or another, water. In an peculiar and brief voice over at the beginning that doesn’t come from the film’s narrator (Vennett/Gosling), but directly from Burry/Bale, we learn that Burry has a glass eye, something that feels like it is brought up for a reason, though it is unclear what that reason might be. Then we see him swimming in a pool in several shots. In the credits we learn that after the housing ordeal, he only dealt in a single commodity: water. I can’t quite piece together what McKay was going for here and haven’t found a satisfactory interpretation elsewhere thus far.

Then you have the issue of The Big Short‘s subpar dialogue. I don’t deny that the film sports a number of witty exchanges delivered by great actors working at the top of their form. But it does a much better job of communicating what went down in 2008 in layman’s terms than it does entertain in intellectual terms. In other words, I find Gosling yelling  “I’m jacked to my tits!” in a bathroom stall or making a ridiculous metaphor about sundaes in a gym to be elements of McKay’s style from working with Will Ferrell to have inappropriately dropped in on a film with more serious intentions.

I don’t have any issue with the humorous presentation of this material. I think it is necessary to make it accessible and entertaining. But when it starts to feel like Hollywood, you can actually lose track of how realistic and horrifying what The Big Short is depicting really is. Where the film’s biggest successes come are how it will suddenly interrupt the banking narratives with pop culture soundbites and imagery, providing an intriguing contrast between the completely idiotic and the ultra-intellectual.

Selena Gomez at a poker table:

As you have probably noticed, I spliced three such clips from the film into this post. Their random interruptions followed by the continuation of the article as if nothing had happened is about representative of how they interrupt the viewer during the film. What is the point of this and other elements of The Big Short such as playing hip-hop music as Burry buys housing swaps looking like the most square white collar father in the country? In part it is the aforementioned contrast. We are used to hearing hip hop, seeing slutty dancing and internet memes, and having it only tied to useless pop-cultural content.

In a scene early on in The Big Short, actually the very scene I was criticizing before in which Baum explains his entire character arc to his wife/the audience, he also spells out that people on the street don’t realize they are getting screwed. They don’t care. They care about the baseball game or which celebrity got impregnated–all the stuff we see interrupt this movie and provide the very information he’s saying they’re not paying attention to. In other words, part of The Big Short‘s commentary, and I think it’s most successful part, is in critiquing the masses for not paying attention, for letting ourselves get sucked into our cell phones and the imbecile idiocy of the internet and letting the banks do this to us, at the expense of our tax paying dollars.

In each of the sequences placed into this post, particularly the Margot Robbie one, there is emphasis placed on how the banks hide these sleazy schemes in dull technical terms to make it appear as if they are beyond the understanding of the layman, when they are not. This is reiterated by several characters throughout the film as well. This complements the rest of the pop culture imagery because that is what people are digesting. So perhaps what McKay is showing us with the pop culture imagery in The Big Short is what it would take in order for people to properly pay attention and fight the banks. If that is the case it is a good thing he took on this film because exactly no one else would have looked at the housing crash of 2008, or even the Michael Lewis book of the same name on which this film is based, and thought of Margot Robbie in a bubble bath!

Watch the trailer for The Big Short:

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