In a scene fairly early on in the The Big Short two financial traders visit a Florida housing estate where, they’ve discovered, most of the homeowners are well behind with mortgage repayments.
They break the news to one of the tenants (he’s working-class: we can tell because he’s fat, wears a stained tank top, is covered in tattoos, and looks and sounds a bit Latino), who asks whether he’s going to lose his home. “Has my landlord not been paying the mortgage?” he asks, stunned. “But I been paying my rent!” On their way out of the estate, the traders are frightened by an alligator lurking in a swimming pool. A violent predator lurking beneath a seemingly placid and inviting surface. It’s literally a metaphor.
Later, impossibly loathsome mortgage brokers discuss duping immigrants and poor families into debt. “Why are they confessing?”, someone asks. “They’re not confessing, they’re bragging,” comes the reply. ‘Crazy’ by Gnarls Barkley plays in the background. A Standard & Poor rating assessor wears dark cataract glasses and complains that she can’t get an appointment with her eye doctor (Get it? She can’t see it coming.). I could go on. The Big Short is not long on subtlety.
But the film isn’t supposed to be subtle. It adapts Michael Lewis’s non-fiction account of the subprime mortgage crash into a self-consciously fictionalised comedy-drama, which still contains a few lessons in recent economic history. The cast is stellar (Christian Bale in particular does what is arguably career-best work), and the fourth wall enjoyably structurally unsound.The soft-surrealist quirks, like having Margot Robbie, playing herself, explain what a subprime mortgage is while drinking champagne in a bath, stop just the right side of annoying and self-indulgent.
The financiers at the centre of this film aren’t hedonistic playboys like The Wolf of Wall Street’s Jordan Belfort: they are, for the most part, eccentrics and oddballs, who make a fortune betting that the cool kids have screwed up. We know they win, because we know what happened; it’s satisfying to see the smug, braying executives at the mega banks scythed down, but the victory for the audience, and for many of the characters, is completely pyrrhic, because of the tragic human cost: mass unemployment, home foreclosures, and the rest.
As Brad Pitt’s Ben Rickert puts it: “If we’re right, people lose homes, people lose jobs, people lose retirement savings, people lose pensions. Know what I hate about fucking banking? It reduces people to numbers. Here’s a number: every one percent unemployment goes up, 40,000 people die. Did you know that?”
There’s a rather hopeless nihilism about the film’s bleak conclusion. Steve Carrell’s Mark Baum predicts that the government will bail out the banks, making the American people pay for the bankers’ greed, “and in a few years everyone will blame poor people and immigrants.” And lo, Donald Trump leads the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
Characters in the film repeatedly attack the “crooks” responsible for the crash, but Baum at least ultimately realises that it’s not a case of bad people misusing an otherwise adequate system: it’s that the system itself encourages, indeed requires, crookedness. He realises, and seemingly resigns himself to, the fact that he’s part of the problem. This film will entertain you, and it’ll certainly help you expand your finance-sector vocabulary. It will also remind you that the gamblers on the casino floors that are the world’s financial markets are not just playing number games but are making multibillion dollar bets with other people’s money, houses, and pensions. But don’t look to this film for anything approaching a perspective for change.
The closing montage shows us our tattooed tenant and his family, all their worldly possessions piled into a car, presumably homeless. Unless you’re a financial worker of some kind, he is the closest thing to you in this film. He is you, and the Florida stripper duped into taking out risky mortgages is you, and the “poor people and immigrants” getting the blame for it all is you. They are you, they are us. We are the ordinary people who had to pay, and are still having to pay, for that crash. In the film’s narrative those people, our people, are passive victims; we do not have to be.