The Big Short: Documentary Fiction

The Big Short is as close to a documentary as a mainstream fiction film can be. We know how feature films often borrow documentary devices to add a touch of realism to their appeal. Dr. Strangelove used hand held cameras for the scenes when the military tries to retake the army base that Jack the Ripper has cordoned off so he can protect his precious bodily fluids from Soviet poisoning, for example, but seldom has an entire fiction film relied so heavily on the documentary tradition to tell its story. Not only is The Big Short based on real people and real events, as historical narratives often are, it utilizes the direct to camera voice of authority as Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), one of the instigators of the strategy at the heart of the film of betting against the ever-rising price of bundled mortgages, confides to us about what he and others are up to. It utilizes cut aways to real life people who were part and parcel of the debacle from Hank Paulsen, intoning how solid it all is as it begins to crumble, to Lance Armstrong, as a metaphorical example of lying and deception at work in every field of American life. It turns to tongue in cheek “experts” to explain the exotic CDOs and other derivates that fueled the bubble, experts like Anthony Bourdain who compares the bundling of mortgages into various tranches to making a fish stew from left overs.
The film has plenty of laughs, painful though they are, when we see, for example, the burly tattooed husband who hangs on to his rented house in an abandoned Florida development, hoping the landlord will finally pay the mortgage, only to have the two Wall Street investigators, working for the fantastic Steve Carell, jump away from a snapping alligator (metaphor anyone?), and for the tattooed guy to be in the background of a much later shot packing up and moving out, done in by other people’s greed.
Our government, from President Obama on down–and it’s way way down once we get to the financial team that ignored,stone walled,and ultimately bailed out the corrupt bad guys who took as much as they could as dishonestly as they could–never looked so depraved and bereft of either awareness of the consequences of short term actions or of basic decency. Greed is one of the seven deadly sins and it has an amazing corrosive effect on the souls of those who pursue it. The Greed of Wall Street displays epic proportions, with the aid of a financial team in Washington under Bush and Obama, pushing to make banking as much a wild west game show as any other “free and open” market. The men, and they are all men, who stand up against it and bet against it, profiting from the folly no one else could see, are our heroes here. Not particularly ethical or principled heroes but a darn sight more heroic in their determination to call a bubble a bubble than the Big Boy Pied Pipers and the legion of Wall Street lemmings who followed them over the cliff. As Vennett tells us at the end, 100s went to jail, major penalties were imposed–oops, no; just kidding! He had it right. It could all happen again and neither Wall Street or our government seems to give a good gosh darn.


22 Jump Street Falls Flat

Praise piles up. That this film mocks its own silliness, refers to its generic conventions endlessly, has characters who act as if they’re in a sequel to a film they’ve already been in, has no one to really root for and no thematic density has become the ultimate compliment it seems. Critics seem to love a film that mocks its own limitations, deflates any high-minded expectations, and effortlessly does their job for them: a pan becomes a kudo and everyone’s happy.
22 does it all: which means it does nothing but does it with aplomb, irony and humor. And Jonah Hill gives some depth, or at least a superficial patina to his character while Channing Tatum struggles to fall into character, sputters through the comedy, comes alive when he has to dance spontaneously and, with his budding buddy romance with the jock star of the college football, injects a hip note of fluid sexuality into it all. Why praise this meatball mashup of lame jokes and plotless meanderings? It’s the New Paradigm, perhaps inspired by video games and text messaging, that eschews complexity, character development, narrative tautness, suspense, and thematic thoughtfulness. Things just pile up and we’re asked to be happy with the tottering heap of stuff that makes the pile. And this is all a Good Thing, at least if a number of critics, plus a very healthy box office, are the judge. Maybe in times of environmental decay, endless war, great wealth and plenty–but only for 1 or 2%, and rabid, hateful, fear-mongering politics as the new normal, this is the best escape Hollywood can offer and gratitude abounds.
I’ll just cast a negative vote into the pool and see if it floats. If there were some rich wit to it all, some dimensionality to characters, some density to the plot, and some reward for devoting two hours to this little heap of cliches, I’d lean a bit more toward praise, but for now, I’ll just point the thumb down and await further enlightenment for the devotees.