This week, the British Board of Film Classification officially certified a 10-hour movie of a single shot of paint drying. For most of us, watching it would be as thrilling as reading the business section of newspaper. We all understand that economics is important, but it simply doesn’t turn us on. Just two years ago, Scorsese demonstrated this in The Wolf of Wall Street. Rather than focus on the boring finance behind the rise of a super banker, he attuned his story into one about cocaine and strippers.
In The Big Short, director Adam McKay chooses to keep to his ‘true story’: one that describes how several US bankers foresaw the imminent 2008 financial crisis and seized the opportunity to ‘short’ – bet against – the banks. As far as financial stories go, it’s pretty sexy.
The film repeatedly tells us that the reason why hardly anyone predicted the financial crash was because nobody really understands what goes on in Wall Street – including the bankers. Considerate of this, McKay punctuates his film with impromptu explanations about the economic jargon being used. To make sure they are interesting, he ropes in a random bunch of celebs to do the job. Unfortunately, despite sharp performances from Christian Bale and Steve Carell, the film becomes more of a stylised explanation than a narrative with any depth.
Of course, the inclusion of these explanations is only one of many gimmicks used to maintain the audience’s attention. McKay plasters the screen with text, moving diagrams, flashback photographs and witty quotations to keep the audience on their toes. Individually, they are fantastic. But while its shot-by-shot editing is sublimely crisp, The Big Short falls foul of overplaying its trump card one too many times. The inclusion of striking explanatory techniques is a valuable cinematic device. But McKay’s excessive use lacks subtlety and his preoccupation with maintaining our interest becomes evident. He finds himself in the ultimate Catch 22: treat the audience like economic experts and the film will be a financial disaster, or overtly spoon-feed them boring information. McKay chose the latter, and consequently doomed the film to fall short of its big potential.