ROOTING FOR (SOME OF) THE BAD GUYS IN THE BIG SHORT
We all love it when the good guys beat the bad guys, espREADecially in non-reality based stories. Frodo destroys the One Ring to vanquish Sauron, Harry Potter defeats Voldemort, the rebels blow up the death star / second death star / starkiller base (not a lot of plot variety in Star Wars, huh?) to defeat the evil empire, and we all get happy with the nice ending of the story. But things get more than a little blurry when the story is based in reality. Sure, we can root for the bad guys in fiction – Tony Soprano, Walter White, Bokeem Woddbine’s absolutely badass character from season 2 of Fargo, etc. – but it’s hard to get an audience to be on the side of characters that prey off of those less fortunate than themselves in a true story e.g., The Big Short.
If I told you the true story of Bernie Madoff, there is no way I could get you to root for Madoff unless I completely change the truth of what happened, or your name is in fact Bernie Madoff. So if you want an audience to root for and laugh along with rich people that profited in amounts those audience members can hardly fathom, by means of betting their wealth that the same audience would continue to be poor and despot, how can you do it?
This was the real intrigue for me with The Big Short. It’s a true story, and one that I knew. The main characters were rich people that saw ahead of time that the housing market was going to collapse, knew it would bring financial ruin all over the world, and then bet large on that happening (“shorting”) and walked away even richer than before. How could Adam McKay, the guy that wrote and directed so many comedies, make me like these characters?
Well, casting helps. Putting together the perfect ensemble certainly can endear the audience to the characters. Ryan Gosling is a player and acts as a narrator of sorts, and in both roles is smarmy and just a bit condescending – but knowingly. Somehow he talks down to the audience but in a way that tells them he’s letting them in on something and now they’re in on the gag. He quickly skates from brash in arrogance to brash in camaraderie, and there’s no way not to like him more for it. He’s an embodiment for McKay’s great script, delivering perfect punch lines and quips at the most unexpected times for maximum laughter.
For the 2 parts of the movie where the script just has to talk down to the audience, explaining the real “inside baseball” banking terms, Gosling’s narrator knows he’d lose you but still wants to sell you so he literally says “So here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to explain.” Smash cut to Margot Robbie in a bubble bath, her butler brings her champagne, she thanks him, looks directly into the camera, explains the complex terms in an easy to understand way, then says “Now fuck off.” Smash cut back to the movie.
The second gag has the explanation given at a blackjack table by a professor, then broken down in easy to understand terms by Selena Gomez. Steve Carell plays a perfect straight man to the insanity that unfolds all around him, even going so far as to almost be a moral compass to the ludicrous greed he accidentally gets wrapped up in. Brad Pitt plays a bearded, grizzled guru helping some of the players get together, and Christian Bale is (as usual) terrific as an Asperger’s afflicted wall street whiz-kid who is first to recognize what’s going on, and thusly has a loner-against-the-odds story that anyone can get behind.
As noted, McKay’s script is great, and plenty funny throughout. The characters are all somehow likeable, and played by known and loved actors. But maybe the greatest strength the story has going for it in terms of getting the audience onto the side of its protagonists, is showing that while these guys may not have been “good” guys here, they weren’t the real bad guys. The real bad guys were, of course, the big banks that got all too fat and greedy and allowed it all to happen in the first place. Not only did those banks allow it to happen, when our protagonists went to the very same banks and asked to “short” the housing market, laying it out in plain terms that the market was indeed going to collapse – with Bale’s character even telling the banks that it was going to bankrupt and end them! – they laughed and took the “short” money, unwilling to even consider that what they were doing could catch up to them.
With that kind of greed and disdain of the American public on display, how could the audience not root for a few groups of guys that saw what was coming and made money off of it? It comes off as a big “screw you” to the banks, and that – along with Margot Robbie in a bubble bath – is something anyone can root for. It may not be the lightest of his movies, but it is well worth checking out what might be McKay’s best film.