The Big Short: DMFS Best of 2015
Des Moines Film Society asked some of our favorite local writers and film fanatics to pick their favorite film of 2015. You can read them all at DMFS: Best of 2015.
A few years ago, after seeing Charles Ferguson’s Oscar-winning feature documentary Inside Job, I couldn’t stop recommending it to people as a lucid, compelling explanation of the 2008 financial crisis. As a documentary, however, it proved a hard sell; not everyone is willing to watch a documentary, whatever the subject matter. Truthfully, I couldn’t imagine that a narrative film could cover much the same ground while still being able to charm and enthrall typical movie audiences. As a result, I expected Inside Job to remain the last word on the Wall Street meltdown. Then in December, The Big Short was released and I realized that it was I who’d sold Hollywood short.
So, how do you interest filmgoers in investing over two hours of their time on a film on a subject that many would just as soon forget? One way is to cast major stars. The Big Short has several A-listers – Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt – and though each performs admirably, this movie doesn’t succeed on the basis of powerhouse casting. In fact, their roles are just four of the many who share screen time in a wonderful, ensemble cast. Instead, the brilliance of the film is primarily the result of the savvy script by Charles Randolph and Adam McKay, who also directed. The screenplay cannily juggles several groups of investors who have a common interest (sadly, the massive default of home mortgage loans), but who operate in slightly different spheres. Despite the fact that their locations occasionally overlap, the screenplay never forces these separate groups to intermingle awkwardly, or take part in a clunky, cast tableau shot at the end of the film. By splitting the story between these various groupings, we gain a greater perspective on all the events that led to this terrible tragedy.
Ingeniously, the script clarifies many of the major elements that led to the failure of some of America’s most-esteemed banks and securities firms without ever becoming didactic. Indeed, it is done with great humor, in several wily ways. For instance, Ryan Gosling’s character acts as an occasional narrator who repeatedly breaks the “fourth wall,” speaking asides to the audience in the midst of scenes in which he’s also taking part. Similarly, other actors sometimes break character to tell viewers that the preceding scene wasn’t what actually took place, then quickly explaining the actual episode. This is an amusing nod to the common end-credit disclaimer that “some events have been changed for dramatic purposes.” Another unconventional device is the use of star cameos (actress Margot Robbie, chef Anthony Bourdain, and singer Selena Gomez) who suddenly pop up to explain some complicated bit of financial terminology within a few seconds time that might otherwise have ground the narrative to a halt had it been dealt with within the context of the story itself. These cinematic flourishes keep the picture moving, inform the viewer, and add comedy relief to what could otherwise be a downbeat tale.
While I have enjoyed McKay’s goofy, irreverent comedies (Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, The Other Guys) of the past, nothing in them prepared me for the filmmaking prowess exhibited in The Big Short. Now that I have witnessed greatness, I hope that his next project is more ambitious than say… an Anchorman 3. I can honestly say that I have a new film to recommend to people on the subject of the financial collapse of 2008 and, no, it’s not a documentary!
Kevin Kretschmer is an Adult Services Librarian at the Franklin Avenue branch of the Des Moines Public Library. His undergraduate degree is in journalism, while his postgraduate degrees are in film studies and in library and information science. He writes the blog: Media Musings: Mad About Movies, Music and More