Movie Review: “The Big Short” – Don’t Bank On It

Written by Matt Butler January 07, 2016

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We’ve seen some impressively informative films this year, whether it be with the psychological visualizations of Inside Out, the inner workings of NASA in The Martian, or the critical exposé of the Catholic Church’s underbelly in Spotlight. This sub-genre, which I’ll call “Pictures with a point”, performs a tricky balancing act of the factual with the visceral. You get a real-world environment, but also compelling characters to lead us through it. You have accuracy, but also sensation. It’s important that these elements are cohesive rather than competitive, because if one side wins, we all lose. Falling headlong into the visceral can make a movie saccharine and schmaltzy while falling too far into the factual can make a movie boring and pedantic. Guess which one The Big Short is…

Perhaps it’s not a huge stretch to say that this movie – about four guys uncovering a defect in the stock exchange that preluded the financial crisis of 2007-2008 – wasn’t something I got super stoked for. With this in mind, I think this review, in particular, is among my more biased. Simply because when it comes to economics, the stock exchange, or some other third word for money, I’m a lost cause. Of course, this shouldn’t matter. A good film will reel in even the dimmest of viewers (like me!) and, at the very least, make them feel smart. Watching The Big Short though, I didn’t know what to feel, except confused.

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How do I best sum up The Big Short? Well, picture the thickest, densest, heaviest economics textbook, this is the movie. Think of every scene as a page. You just started studying and the final exam is in three hours! You’re rushing through each page, practically skimming, which represents the hyper-active, rushed editing style of the film. No time to comprehend it. Just keep reading, even if it doesn’t make any sense. Osmosis, right? At the end of each chapter, you find the sum-up paragraph that describes the most basic and crucial terminology of the chapter, this is the scene in which some sexually appealing celebrity pops up to bring you up to speed, if for but a moment. Rinse and repeat.

“It’s like someone hit a piñata full of white people who suck at golf.”

That’s about the best way I can describe The Big Short, and while its money-savviness proves it to be an intelligent film, it’s not a very emotional one. This has much to do with the characters, who aren’t so much characters as they are mouthpieces for an Economics 101 lecture. Since the film ties together four simultaneous plot threads, there’s little time to gain an intimate understanding of the people at play. There are some subtle attempts at giving backstories and motivation, but they’re so secondary to the film at large that they feel arbitrary. The lack of compelling characters makes the drama feel forced and limits the scope of the comedy. Aside from Ryan Gosling’s suave and smarmy narrations, which are always on point, there’s hardly any comedy that relates directly to the story or the characters, it’s mostly just ribs and swears thrown in to relieve tension. This is what I mean by a film falling headlong into the factual, it forgets that you need characters with character for your audience to… care.

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“There is some shady shit going down.”

Aside from its editing and narrative structure, The Big Short is quite similar to Spotlight. Both are deeply informative works that posit an urgency to expose an unseen side of a story. However, Spotlight had a more emotional undercurrent and didn’t have to take breaks to explain itself. Though I couldn’t place myself inside either of these movies, at least with Spotlight, I always knew what was going on.

“Truth is like poetry. And most people fucking hate poetry, a maxim overheard at a Washington, D.C., bar.”

The big problem with The Big Short is that its script is almost entirely in service of explaining financial terminology to the audience, with little to no attention to character development or emotional investment. From the first ten minutes you get the gist of it, Wall Street messed up, they exploited and scammed us all and as a result, everyone had to pay the price. But it all boils down to that simple thesis: Wall Street done goofed. Everything else just feels redundant and cynical. Though it attempts to reach the audience with its cheeky and intentionally patronizing asides, the denseness of the script’s financial jargon makes these scenes too essential. I found myself growing impatient for the simple explanations rather than being engrossed in the complexities. I know this speaks more to my tastes than it does the film, seeing as The Big Short has garnered favourable reviews across the board, but put plain and simple, I couldn’t get into it. I may not know a lot about the stock market, but when it comes to movies, I always bank on emotional engagement, and The Big Short just didn’t feel worth the investment.

My Rating: 5/10

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About Matt Butler

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is a strapping young English Major with a fiery passion for the art of cinematic storytelling. He likes long walks on the beach and knows the proper use of 'your' and 'you're'. (Example: I hope YOU'RE having a wonderful time browsing our site, and I hope you enjoy YOUR time reading my film reviews. I wrote them just for you.)

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