Can ‘The Big Short’ Use Humor to Remind Us About the Mortgage Bubble and the Financial Crisis?

Almost eight years have passed since the mortgage bubble burst, many ordinary Americans lost their homes, and the “great recession” began. A great deal of fraud, corruption, and sheer bungling created the mess, yet since then exactly one banker has gone to jail for malfeasance.

“Banks got bailed out! We got sold out!” was the cry in 2011 as Americans rose up to protest this state of affairs. And certainly, Occupy Wall Street successfully got the entire country thinking about the 1% and 99% dynamic. The short-lived but powerful movement and arguably set the tone for Bernie Sanders’ improbably long-lived presidential run and the Democrats’ tough talk about holding Wall Street accountable. And yet meaningful reform to the financial system has yet to occur.

Donald Trump’s terrifying popularity indicates that for a large swath of Americans who suffered during the housing crisis, palpable anger seems directed towards immigrants and the poor and not the architects of the economic blowup — even after the government took taxpayer money to bail out the banks. This is exactly the fate that a banker named Mark Baum, played by a wonderful Steve Carell, anticipates in the closing moments of  The Big Short, Adam McKay’s star-studded adaptation of Michael Lewis’ book about the rogue bankers who foresaw the crisis.

Baum is one of a handful of chicken littles in the film, rogue financial types — including Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, and Christian Bale — mostly self-interested but sharp and perceptive. They see the sky falling and we know by now they’re right. Some try to sound the alarm, are laughed off, and attempt to make a pile of money off of the impending collapse of the economy. Others just do the latter. In following their journey towards a major payday, filled with the kind of bro-isms and opulence we remember from the Wolf of Wall Street, the film simultaneously shows the economy spinning towards doom. Their win is our loss.

But that’s the idea. Director Adam McKay wants his very entertaining film to also be a small wake-up call for his audience. “Like even if it just kicked the conversation a little bit, like if you just started hearing about it more because the movie comes out, and if it ends up doing well, that people in some of the debates would have to talk about it, that would be a huge victory,” McKay told New York Magazine’s Jessica Pressler for her cover story about the film. “And if people were to actually get angry about it again, I would do backflips. But I don’t know if we can really hope for that.”

McKay is the director of comedies like Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and The Campaign  — the third of which, with its direct Koch brothers send up,, demonstrates his political leanings. Anyone who considers Will Ferrell something of a muse knows quite well how to milk laughs by sending up masculine swagger, and McKay uses that skill in abundance throughout the film.  (I’ve also always found him to be sort of a stealth feminist, in that he lets his female comedians really get goofy and take risks in his films, whereas Judd Apatow always puts his female characters on a pedestal of straight exasperation).

In this more serious film, McKay leverages humor and his actors’ slickness to explain to a popular audience exactly how we got into this mess, even employing celebrities like Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdain to use metaphors about gambling and making fish stew to demystify the jargon. That’s very much intentional on McKay’s part, since he sees the jargon as a deliberate strategy to make the public’s eyes glaze over: “They were selling products that were filled with garbage and ended up selling them to each other, and bringing each other all down, and then going to the taxpayers after preaching free markets and asking for a handout, and then taking the handout, and going back and acting like they are still kings of the world — it’s ridiculous,” he told New York. His goal: to open eyes back up.

Unlike its director, who is clear about the message tucked into his film, The Big Short itself doesn’t attempt to moralize much until its final moments. Yet small touches that remind us of who really got burned (people being evicted, others who were duped into buying homes with no down payments) are actually, in my mind, enough to do the trick, keeping the human stakes in the back of our mind as we follow these finance guys on their wild ride.

Rather than crusaders or reformers, our protagonists are simply looking to make a buck out of Wall Street mendacity and laziness. But as McKay said, “These are the kind of heroes you get when you are part of a society that is awash in money.” And  maybe that’s good. Americans love rich guys, and enjoy rooting for characters who seem smarter than other people, who are stupid. And this film is more about intelligence and diligence outsmarting greed and bumptiousness than it is about the good guys and the bad guys.  Nonetheless, The Big Short certainly made me mad, and even gave me a more precise understanding of the subprime loan scandal — and I spent much of autumn 2011 reporting from “Occupied” Zuccotti Park, so I was already mad and fairly well-informed. This holiday season,  the best present I can hope for is that The Big Short finds a massive audience and reminds Americans that many of our biggest existential threats have no bombs or weapons. They are found in office buildings and trading floors right here at home, protected and bailed out by taxpayer dollars.