Karma sans Justice: The Big Short (R)

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Nerds are the last to finish first, but, if The Big Short is to be believed, that might be just about the best time to get ahead. Nerds have a sense of this. They might fall behind the jocks on the sporting fields and have all of the humiliating wedgies in high school; they might not date the cheerleader. But by the time that they hit their late twenties or early thirties, they will be the ones who can choose any girl in the room—or maybe it’s on the dating social network the invented. Underneath this sentiment is a veneer of moral indignation; somehow it seems like good karma without death in between.

But when it comes to The Big Short, there is little room for this sentiment, because, as anyone born before 2005 can recall, the wrath of Midas can fall on the just and unjust alike. The Great Recession affected just about every Americans’ life in some large or small way—mine included. (I still remember being glad when recession hit, thinking that it would be a good time to buy in and make lots of money later down the road. I could not have been more wrong.)

Very few people saw it coming. The Big Short makes clear, though, that this wasn’t the case everywhere. And, given how obvious the tell-signs were, it is almost surprising that more people were not able to figure it out. The first one to notice something is Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a hedge fund manager with a fittingly unconventional background. (By training, he is a doctor of the can-set-your-leg variety.) He is also literally (and symbolically) blind in one eye, but that is not such a bad thing in a land of the blind.

Although he might be the chief executive officer of a major (if also boutique) hedge fund, Burry is also a sort of wise fool in the tradition of Shakespeare’s jesters. When he shows up on Wall Street to tell the banks that he wants to buy shares to hedge against the housing market, they look at him the same way that an ambulance chasing lawyer looks at a guy in a body caste.

Burry might be able to see further than everyone else, but he is not the only one in the film on board. There are others who soon see that the ship is sinking and jump in time to not just save themselves but to make the last call for drinks at the beach’s cocktail bar.  Among them are the morally indignant Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) and Mark Baum (Steve Carrell), the ambitious Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and the completely amoral Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) who doubles as the story’s narrator, constantly breaking the third wall in comic vignettes that wink at the audience as though to say, “You may not be a nerd; just bear with us.” (At one point, the film uses Anthony Bourdain to explain junk mortgages using raw seafood.)

The director, Adam McKay, is best known as being the auteur behind various Will Farrell movies, like Step Brothers and Anchorman 2, and there is nothing in the style of The Big Short which is unique. The photography is competent but not memorable. The editing is economic but not creative. That is to say that The Big Short is a movie which belongs to its actors, and not just the leading actors but also the cameos: the junk bond managers and mortgage lenders (the film’s ostensible villains) who brag about their abilities to game the system; the regulators who share hotel rooms (and beds) with the major bankers and give triple A ratings for higher fees; the immigrant families who find themselves homeless after making the mistake of renting a house from a landlord who was about to stop paying the mortgage.

Ultimately, everyone but the film’s protagonists—the nerds—are punished. Nerds eventually do finish first. But while intelligence is rewarded and folly in punished, the film leaves no real sense that justice has been done. As Ben Rickert says after leaving the home mortgage convention, he and his colleagues are betting against the American economy and, for every one percent unemployment rises, hundreds of people are going to die. Looking back on it all, hundreds of people probably did die. Just not the main characters of this film.

James Banks

James Banks is a recovering writer and academic living in upstate New York. Before a quarter-life crisis drove him to work at a government bureau, he taught (and assistant taught) writing and movie classes at the University of Rochester. He can fake a New York accent when he tries, but he is a West Coaster and graduated from the University of Idaho in 2008.

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