It’s not often I see a film that makes me angry, but hot new Oscar contender The Big Short managed it. Not because of any righteous rage engendered by its star-studded, faux-documentary-style expose of the banking crash of 2008 – my rage at that was righteous enough already – but because of the patronising, intelligence-insulting, comedic-didactic way it chose to tell the story.
Maybe there are people so incurious about the near-collapse of the global economy and Capitalism itself that they never bothered to read up on it, and to discover how the banks rolled sub-prime mortgages into a grab-bag of triple A-rated bonds with the connivance of lazy and/or corrupt regulators, and that the banks, when they realised the whole thing was going tits-up, then took out their own shorting positions, effectively betting against themselves and their own investors in order to protect themselves in the final weeks or days before the financial apocalypse. If so, they will find much here to enlighten them.
For the rest of us, it’s like having Russell Brand bellow “Wake Up, Sheeple!” into a megaphone for two hours, interrupted occasionally by L’Oreal Elvive’s Jennifer Aniston tossing her golden locks knowingly to camera as she warns, for the benefit of beauty-loving women who obviously therefore have no brain, “Here comes the science bit!”
Here’s how close the Aniston analogy actually is: near the beginning, there is an explanation of financial terms that the film-makers worry will make the viewer nod off, despite being illustrated with pictures of puppies in sunglasses, I kid you not. Here the film actually stops like a scratched record and says, in these exact words, “Are you getting bored? These terms are designed by Wall Street to give the impression that only they know how to understand them. So here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to explain it.”
They actually do cut to Margot Robbie – the comely actress from The Wolf of Wall Street, playing herself, not a character in the movie – sipping Champagne in a bubble bath as she talks about how the crisis originated. [As another journalist has pointed out, this is far from the only sexist aspect to The Big Short: it also leaves out a key real-life female player, and “amusingly” tries to sugar-coat another load of financial exposition by setting it in a strip club.] Other such breakings of the fourth wall include “celebrity chef” Anthony Bourdain explaining bad bonds through the medium of fish stew, and Selena Gomez demonstrating CDO’s through a Vegas Blackjack table.
No doubt the critics, who have raved about the film, see all these devices as thrillingly post-modern. I think that kind of thing is becoming cliched, myself, but my real problem is with the film telling its audience, loudly and clearly: “You’re all celebrity-obsessed jackasses who won’t listen to anything unless it comes from a gorgeous star’s pouting lips or hits you over the head with a hammer, so here you go, you’re welcome.” Maybe some people are like that. But even so, you don’t usually convince someone of an argument by first insulting them, you patronising triple A-holes.
Sigh. All right: on the plus side, the cast are excellent, particularly Christian Bale, cast against type as a borderline autistic heavy-metal-loving maths whizz with a glass eye and poor social skills who staked hundreds of millions on betting against the supposedly infallible housing market – the “big short” of the title. I am also enormously glad that risky, brave, high-profile films with a social conscience are being made at all: kudos here to Brad Pitt, who is behind this one as producer, as he was behind 12 Years A Slave. And, as I said, many people like it: it’s had four-to-five star reviews and won the Producers’ Guild award for best film. In disliking it, I kind of feel like the people depicted in The Big Short: convinced of my rightness against the prevailing orthodoxy.
So let’s go for broke. In my last blog, I wrote how The Big Short had suddenly surged to become William Hill’s front runner for the Best Film Oscar. Call me crazy (you wouldn’t be the first), but I think Oscar is more discerning than that. So I’m going to contact William Hill and try to lay my own “short” – betting against it winning.