Jamie Bircoll: A history lesson from 'The Big Short'

Tuesday, January 12, 2016 - 5:31pm

If I ask you to tell me about Adam McKay’s 2010 film “The Other Guys,” you’ll probably tell me it’s a buddy-cop film starring Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg. You might recount the cameos from Samuel L. Jackson and The Rock as hypermasculine cops who absent mindedly jump off a building to their deaths in a less than heroic attempt to catch a perp. Perhaps you’ll remember Michael Keaton’s pretty hilarious turn as a police chief by day, Bed, Bad & Beyond floor manager by night. But you probably don’t remember much about the villain. It’s not the English mercenaries with guns and bad attitudes — they’re the antagonists. Steve Coogan plays the villain: a banker. It’s his bumbling attempt at covering investment losses that draws the antagonists in.

So it’s really not too surprising that the guy who brought us such comedy gold as “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights” also brought us the most biting and, in my opinion, one of the more important films to come out in the last few years with “The Big Short.” It’s a movie that walks a very fine line between entertainment and education and succeeds on both fronts. The goal, I think, is to laugh for two hours, and, in the last five minutes, to get angry, fuming even.

But with whom are we supposed to be angry? The Banks, of course! Those crooks on Wall Street!

No, it’s not that simple.

Let’s examine the other big bank movie that most people (myself included) thought “The Big Short” would ultimately be: “The Wolf of Wall Street.” These are actually two very different movies; Where “The Big Short” focuses on hedge fund managers, “The Wolf of Wall Street” follows the investment bankers themselves. For three hours, we are seduced by this Wall Street life of excess and luxury and opulence. Even if you despise the movie, you can’t help but marvel a little bit at how much fun all these people had. All the drugs, the sex — even Jonah Hill looking his absolute worst can get some — and nothing ever goes wrong. Ever.

The point, of course, in flashing all this excess is to show just how irresponsible and ego-driven these people are, right? Wrong. The key is in the very last shot. Go watch it — I’ll wait.

That last shot is 24 seconds long, and it captures an audience. But it’s not just any audience — it’s you, you who desires wealth and power and influence just as much as the next guy, you who wants success with the minimal amount of effort. Look at these faces — they’re enthralled, they’re eating up Jordan Belfort’s coke-dusted, slimy words. This man robbed them, he robbed you, but you’re fascinated, mesmerized and you yearn for a piece of his success.

“The Wolf of Wall Street” exists to remind you that guys like Jordan Belfort continue to thrive and that it’s up to you to be seduced by them or rise against them. But I think the movie itself seduced a lot of people, and its message got lost in a Quaalude-induced haze.

Which is why it’s appropriate “The Big Short” was released only two years after “Wolf.” It’s a second attempt at a similar message, only this time it’s far more blunt about it.

Rather than have a character break the fourth wall and directly tell the audience how much of a scumbag he/she is, as Leonardo DiCaprio did as Belfort in “Wolf,” McKay very smartly has celebrities playing themselves address the audience. “You didn’t listen the first time, “ McKay might have said. “So here’s Margot Robbie in a bathtub to explain it to you.” Well it got my attention, and the attention of every other individual in a packed theater on a Saturday night, regardless of gender or age.

McKay does the heavy lifting for us, witling down a very complicated issue (and certainly more complicated than the film suggests) into the bare bones so that we the plebeians can understand just how badly we got screwed over. So by the end of the movie, we are supposed to have laughed at the absurdity of it all, and then we’re supposed to get angry. “How could they do this? How inhumane!” we mumble to ourselves or exclaim to our friends and family as we exit the theater.

But that’s still not the whole story.

Because you’re forgetting that we’ve been spoon-fed information to make sure that we get it this time. And you’re also forgetting that we have seen clips of us plebeians living our lives, being completely ignorant of our own stupidity. Take, for example, the father of two who doesn’t check to make sure his landlord is making regular payments to the bank, or the stripper who takes out mortgages with zero money down on five homes and an apartment. The banks may have screwed them, but they let themselves get screwed.

I saw “The Big Short” with my family over winter break, and as we left the theater, I heard exclamations of anger. Many in the audience didn’t even get out of their seats, as though petrified by their rage. And as I sat with my family at dinner that night, as we discussed the movie, I said to them, “The biggest joke of that movie is, two days from now, none of these people will care or remember their anger or why they were angry in the first place.”

And I’m fairly certain I’m right, because people should be outraged, and they should be even more outraged that not only has nothing changed in the eight years since the collapse, but that the banks are bigger.

And we simply cannot forget that anger and betrayal, because there’s a primary election fast approaching and there’s a particular, very popular candidate who is very pro-Big Bank and blames the 2008 collapse on “shadow banks,” like AIG, as opposed to the actual banks that caused the actual problems (hint: four of her career top five donors are Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and Morgan Stanley).

I never expected the public to have a “Network”-style “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” moment after seeing “The Big Short,” but I did expect a little more than awards speculation. Where’s the outrage? I can’t even find a wayward Tumblr warrior ranting about it.    

My point is this: “The Big Short” is more than entertainment — it’s a history lesson that doubles as a slap in the face to remind us just how badly we as a nation, not just Wall Street, screwed up. There are more educational, better researched and more academic media that better explain the heart of the 2008 collapse (the documentary “Inside Job” is a great place to start — Matt Damon narrates, if that helps. As is the book “The Big Short.”), but “The Big Short” is an accessible entry point that gets the job done.

To deny that we have a part to play, to feign ignorance, is painfully foolish. Go see “The Big Short.” Laugh, have a good time. And then let the pain sink in. And then get angry. Because if you don’t soon, when the next recession hits in the next 10, or 15, or 20 years, if not sooner, it’ll be too late. And I really don’t think we need another film about the collapse of the American economy.