The Big Short is a biographical comedy-drama film, directed and co-written by Adam McKay, adapted from the non-fiction 2010 book of the same name by Michael Lewis about the financial crisis triggered by the housing bubble in 2007-2008. I was able to watch this movie long after it’s wide release on December 23, 2015 due to its strong showing at the Oscars with nominations for five Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor for Bale, and Best Adapted Screenplay (which it rightfully won after turning a non-fiction book about something as dry as investing into a highly entertaining biographical comedy-drama). All of the characters in the film are based on real people, a fact that the film doesn’t let the audience forget after a scene where two of the characters break the fourth wall to tell us that the scene that just occurred was dramatized before telling us the real sequence of events. In fact, the film repeatedly breaks the fourth wall, which is against typical drama conventions. However, due to the melding of three genres this is very effective in educating the audience, while emphasizing the fact that this movie is biographical at its core. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the film, its representation gender and race is problematic and leaves much to be desired.
I’m going to preface my analysis of the film by saying that I did thoroughly enjoy the film. The humor was more often than not spot on and. I learned a lot about what caused the financial crisis. I loved how the ending questioned whether shorting the market may have been as unethical as the behaviors that caused its collapse. I left the movie scared for the future of our country, and for me, when a movie makes me really think about or feel something, it was worth my time.
Now onto my issues with how the film represented gender and race. Firstly, there are only about six women in the film with speaking roles (and that’s including Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez whose appearances I’ll touch on shortly). I initially defended this using the excuse that the film is biographical. However, Meredith Whitney, a research analyst at Oppenheimer & Co, is highly regarded by Michael Lewis in the book and is heralded as the oracle of the financial crisis (Merle, Web). Her exclusion is unnecessary, and makes the minor roles of those women who have been included even more damaging. Three of the women in this film are shown to either be arrogant, corrupt, or just naive. There’s the corrupt S&P accountant who colludes with the banks by giving them high credit ratings that they don’t deserve, one of the Goldman Sachs employees who taunts the protagonist, Michael Burry, when he asks to short the housing market, and the stripper credited as “Dancer” who appears at the end of the trailer with “…five houses, and a condo” that she can’t afford. While the same cannot be said for the other two women, particularly the middle-aged accountant who is wearing those bulky sunglasses you get after getting your pupils dilated, the dancer’s “… appearance is coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can connote to-be-looked-at-ness” (Mulvey, 837). She is giving Steve Carell’s character a lap dance while explaining her loan situation after all.
One of the most memorable aspects of the film is when it cuts from the narrative to an explanation of one of the financial terms by a celebrity. For the scene with Margot Robbie explaining some of these terms in a bubble bath that I’ve linked below, “… her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation. This alien presence then has to be integrated into cohesion with the narrative” (Mulvey, 837). Something similar happens with Selena Gomez in a low-cut top in a casino. Both women are objectified, a while it is heavily laced with irony, particularly in the case of the Robbie scene, it is still problematic.
The representation of race, particularly through the representation of Asian males, was also problematic. Memorable Asian male roles include the other Goldman Sachs employee who taunts the Michael when he asks to short the housing market, the unlikable and extremely arrogant head of the CDO who makes tones of money doing nothing, and the quantitative math specialist, Jiang, who Jared says doesn’t speak English to make him seem more “authentic” (see clip below). This film “… portray[s] Asian… men as the antithesis of everything that Western men like to think they are.” (Hollinger, 193). While the cut away to him explaining his backstory shows the irony in Jared’s representation of him as a stereotypical Asian male, the irony does not excuse this misrepresentation of his race.
I watched this movie with my family while I was home for spring break at Sundance Cinemas in the downtown Houston, TX theater district. This is one of those fancy theaters complete with a bar (featuring cocktails, draft beers, wines and fresh food) and an art gallery (I’m not kidding), where you reserve your seat(s) either online. We went to the matinee showing to the tune of $9.75 a ticket. The building itself is very well decorated and maintained, you would be pressed to find a trashcan overflowing with popcorn bags at this place. After we handed our tickets to the man working there, he offered to validate our parking pass before motioning over to the aforementioned bar and telling us what they offered. Since we were all full on pho noodles that we had for lunch, we passed on the refreshments.
I think that it’s fairly safe to say that most of the people at this movie were at least middle class and over the age of 40. This is what made the following glitch a “big deal”. Throughout the film, the projector would start turning the shadows red so after a while it looked like these characters were even more upset than they actually were. Each time, some old person would get up in a huff and tell one of the workers, they would have to pause the movie and “fix” the projector for about five minutes. This happened four times throughout the movie. The only thing that really bothered my sister and me was the fact that the workers never came out and apologized to the audience. The older people, including my parents, would have liked to see more action, like a free voucher for the bar or a refund on the ticket. When we were leaving the theater, an upset couple in their 50s asked one of the workers if they would get a refund and he just told them that only the people who left before the end of the movie (as there were many people who did so) would receive a refund. My sister and I were left wondering why some of these people let something relatively small make such a huge impact on their mood and likely on their entire day.
- Hollinger, Karen. (2012). “Feminist Film Studies”.
- Merle, Renae, “One of the holidays’ top movies forgets an important part of the story: The woman” <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/12/24/the-big-short-forgets-an-important-part-of-the-story-the-woman/>
- Mulvey, Laura. (1975). “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”