Movie Review: The Big Short

The film is probably the best its creators could do.

Before seeing The Big Short, read the New York Times Magazine (and ProPublica) article, “Why Only One Top Banker Went to Jail for the Financial Crisis.” It will add to your outrage. And outrage is what you need when you see this film.

The article, while long and at times a bit dense, is written in the style of a Michael Lewis book (including The Big Short): Find a compelling person or group who are examples of a big, but hard to comprehend, truth and spend months embedded in their world. Desperately look for ways to find heroes and villains with compelling stories. When that fails, do the best you can. The article is probably the best its writers could do. The film is probably the best its creators could do.

Key quote from the NYT Magazine article:

“Life on Wall Street is often portrayed as hours of kinetic fury with billions on the line, but the work is more often suited to wonks who are comfortable digesting Excel spreadsheets.”

The film admits this challenge up front–and continues to admit it for the next two hours. It has a character who breaks the fourth wall for context-providing punctuations and even cuts to pop-culture icons who use metaphors to explain debt instruments that were designed to be incomprehensible. Like infographics, these break-away bits are intended to help us lay-people understand the math and data a bit more easily. But like most infographics one sees today, these bits seem more about being bits than providing comprehension.

The break-aways and fourth wall breaking don’t work as well as, say, they do on an episode of Modern Family, and in the end, the movie depends on us all accepting Michael Lewis and the filmmaker’s version of the meltdown to provide us any meaningful outrage. And by meaningful, I mean the kind that makes us send people to jail.

That’s where reading the NYT Magazine article might help.

Key quote from the NYT Magazine article:

“839 people were convicted of crimes related to the savings and loan crisis of the 1980. 1 person was convicted of crimes related to the financial crisis.”

The movie needed more outrage than the popcorn it was served with.

(Note for a limited time only: One last thing for people who live in NYC. For a surreal experience that adds a little performance art to the movie, see it at the Regal Theater in Battery Park City. As you leave the theater and are riding the escalators down to exit, you’ll be able to look out the window of the building you are in and into the window of an office building a few feet away. What you are seeing is a current trading floor of Goldman Sachs. As one of the dramatic devices used by the director of The Big Short is the “outside” / “inside” nature of Wall Street trading floors — especially during the film’s last few moments — the realization that you are seeing a version of the inner sanctum that two of the characters want desperately to see can help make you understand what a challenge it is to create a compelling movie about people sitting in cubicles looking at computer monitors.