Most disaster stories follow a pretty simple formula: 1. An expert discovers that the safety of the entire world is balanced very precariously. 2. The expert brings this information to the people who can prevent the upcoming disaster, but they ignore/laugh them out of the room. 3. Undaunted, the expert starts preparing for disaster, building an arc for anyone who believes them to ride the oncoming storm out on. 4. The disaster strikes, swallowing everybody who doubted the expert, who is forced to rebuild should there be anything left.
Noah’s flood, the Titanic, The Day After Tomorrow, Interstellar, Krypton, countless Kaiju movies – all pretty closely follow this formula, and so does The Big Short. Only, this disaster actually happened; and it wasn’t the people who laughed at the heroes who were punished, it’s everybody they doomed. But it’s not like the heroes were actually out to save anyone other than themselves anyway.
The Big Short tells the story of the housing market crash and economic collapse of 2007-’08, focusing on the handful of people who saw it coming, bet against what everyone else thought was the most secure market in the world, and made billions while millions of others lost everything. If the world were a better place, I’d call it a “post-capitalist comedy,” but seeing how the world is still dealing with the fallout from this particular disaster, it’s decidedly a tragedy. Thousands lost their homes, millions more lost their financial security, taxpayers paid billions to the people responsible – none of whom have been punished – and a billionaire real-estate despot is now President of the United States of America, due largely to his base’s support of the persecution of the scapegoats that this disaster set up.
With that sort of premise, it’s frankly a miracle that The Big Short is as enjoyable as it is. A confluence of great direction, propulsive editing, acting that makes all these entitled rich white men relatable, and a screenplay that finds a perfect balance between econ-babble and comic layman explanations to help anybody understand what these bankers are really up to.
The Big Short really does do a great job of simplifying the factors leading up to the housing crash, and even turns its main group of Cassandras into somewhat heroic characters before dashing them down with reminders that they really did win a bet against global economic stability. A lot of it comes from the movie’s use of a documentary-esque style, with an uneven handheld character and lots of held close-ups on the character’s reactions as they learn more and more about how the entire world economy depends on 4% of homeowners without jobs paying their rent on time. Despite Christian Bale, Steve Carrel, Brad Pitt, and Ryan Gosling being some of our most famous actors, a mix of bad haircuts and make-up, plus the documentary-style, really does make them seem like relatable everymen who’ve just learned to game a corrupt system.
Funnily enough, the other big thing that works about The Big Short are the bits that completely break the documentary style, and the fourth wall. Whenever one of the many economic terms or concepts that pop up in the movie need explanation, the characters will either talk straight to the camera to catch the audience up; or we’ll cut to a celebrity, such as Margot Robbie or Selena Gomez, who’ll explain it with a metaphor. Besides helping the audience engage with this otherwise purposefully boring material, and breaking up the scenes of mostly grey office building interiors with shiny celebs, having recognizable people talking somewhat candidly about the plot of the movie as it happens provides a weird grounding effect. It illustrates that these concepts do exist, that these things did happen, outside of the closed circle of the movie. It reminds the audience that while The Big Short is a dramatization, it’s not entirely fiction.
The Big Short is a disaster movie that reminds audiences that when these sorts of disasters happen in real life, they aren’t some freak act of God, and that the people responsible usually escape their punishment. It’s a strangely sobering look back at one of the biggest events to happen in the past decade, and that also looks at the present, telling us that it’s not over, and that it’ll likely happen again.