The Big Short

LetterboxD review link

Adam McKay made some bold choices in directing this film. He took complex, heavy, convoluted material and framed it in faux-doc style, with lots of jump cuts, flashbacks, stills and basically every technique you could throw onto the screen. If this technique was meant to invoke the building blocks of a synthetic financial instrument (like a CDO or SCDO), the risk did not pay off. Instead of a screen adaptation like Moneyball, which took similar complex, insider baseball source material, but brought it to the screen in an interesting way, we get a busy, bloated, over-wrought adaptation that succeeds only because of its flashy actors and the gravity of the topic on which it is based.

There have been better screen adaptations of the story of the 2008 crisis, including but not limited to MARGIN CALL and INSIDE JOB (for the didactic) and WOLF OF WALL STREET (for the moralistic). My guess is the THE BIG SHORT will not be as memorable as the others.

To wit, the 2008 financial crisis was a once-in-a-generation, world-view forming type of event for people in my peer group. Along with 9/11, which turned people’s attention foreign policy, the financial crisis turned people’s heads toward economic policy. I have been engrossed in reading and learning about economic theory since (in fact my favorite cameo was behavioral economist Richard Thaler). But it frightens me that we depend on entertaining news programs or scintillating journalism to pay attention to otherwise ignored areas of our lives. If Michael Lewis hadn’t spent time researching and revealing this story, we may never have understood the role of the housing market in the financial crisis. To go from fraudulent home loans in Miami to 5M jobs lost requires a non-trivial understanding of complex systems. This American Life’s Adam Davidsen, Malcolm Gladwell, ProPublica, even entertainers like Lin-Manuel Miranda are doing important work in writing and creating entertaining work based on often overlooked social forces. In that way, Adam McKay should be praised for throwing his weight behind this story. I just wish this wasn’t the only way for us to know about how our own society works. It is too easy for interested parties to hide unpalatable details behind boring acronyms.

THE BIG SHORT is fun, it’s funny, it is worth seeing. But as a film, it doesn’t succeed as much as its source material. I wish it did. Our future could depend on work like this succeeding.