“We Would Prefer Not To”: “The Big Short” and Liberalism’s Myths




“HOLLYWOOD OCCUPIES WALL STREET,” declared the November 30 cover of New York magazine. Each of the issue’s three editions displayed a full-size close-up of either Christian Bale, Steve Carell, or Ryan Gosling, the stars of Best Picture nominee The Big Short. The expression on each actor’s face falls just shy of a discernable affect. Bale’s eyes are slightly narrow; Carrell’s lips are possibly pursed; and the right side of Gosling’s mouth tilts upward in what might be an ambivalent smile. For an occupation, it’s a curiously stoic affair. With their apparent refusal to emote, the images embody the refrain of Melville’s Bartleby — a figure frequently embraced by the actual occupiers of Zuccotti Park in 2011 — “I would prefer not to.”

But such a blanket refusal to perform is impossible for three of the world’s biggest movie stars. Their faces, no matter how they manipulate them (or refuse to), instantly conjure up associations for millions of media consumers. Gosling’s almost-smile, in particular, has proven itself so evocative that a few years ago it became a Tumblr sensation, his mug inviting both the declaration of an endless array of desires and fantasies, as well as an implicit facetiousness that disavowed the very same. One can easily imagine the caption that would be affixed for this particular occasion: “Hey girl, want to break up the big banks?” Gosling’s image kind of deflates the grand gesture that New York magazine puts forth so earnestly, rendering anticapitalism as just another meme, a sentiment at once announced freely but simultaneously held at an ironic distance.

By all accounts, crass meme-ification should have been the problem with The Big Short itself. Based on the 2010 Michael Lewis bestseller of the same name, the film profiles four groups of financial professionals who anticipated — and wagered large sums of money on — the collapse of the US housing market, which precipitated the global recession of 2008. Despite its grave, wonky subject matter, The Big Short wears a media-saturated cynicism on its sleeve — chiefly in Gosling’s narration, which denigrates viewers’ savvy as it enlists celebrities with no narrative relevance to the film (Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain, Selena Gomez) to explain financial jargon against a number of exotic backdrops: in a bubble bath, a gourmet kitchen, and a Vegas casino, respectively. The film seems to pander in subtler ways, too: its transitional montages flip rapidly through images from contemporary history and pop culture to mark the passing of time, or in one case to simply underscore the euphoria of a Wall Street buying spree. It’s as if, certain that the plain exposition of high finance will not impart sufficient drama, the film punctuates its narrative ebbs with these sensory overloads to satisfy the undisciplined appetites of an internet-age audience.

This snarky, apparently cynical and lowbrow approach should come as no surprise, given that The Big Short was written and directed by Adam McKay, the Upright Citizens Brigade founder whose previous features have all been Will Ferrell comedies. Playing to McKay’s proven strengths, the actors portray antisocial rogues, whose many aesthetic and interpersonal faux pas score many of the film’s early laughs. This could be viewed as yet another decision to pander, but in its performances The Big Short finds its unlikely pathos. This is not despite the celebrity baggage of its world-famous leads, but because of it.

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If the defiant New York magazine covers attempt to isolate the actors’ images from their circulation in the frivolous economy of celebrity, The Big Short embraces and exploits their fame. The first shot after the film’s title card is of Michael Burry (Bale), sitting at his office desk with his earbuds in, nodding and drumming along. When the camera cuts to a reverse shot, he is suddenly speaking, and we realize that he is not alone. With the sound of his drumsticks still tapping emphatically in the background, he begins explaining the economy’s fault lines to his firm’s bewildered new hire.

Bale has played an antisocial financier with a proclivity to retreat into his headphones before. One of the most memorable scenes in Mary Harron’s American Psycho (2000) has Bale’s Patrick Bateman using his headphones to drown out the chatter of his fiancée (Reese Witherspoon) during a cab ride. Bateman’s ghostly presence in The Big Short is most apparent during an awkward silence in the conversation between Burry and his new colleague. Burry realizes that he’s been rambling and silences himself, suddenly breaking into an uncharacteristic smile that he holds for an endless four seconds. Bale’s narrow eyes and open-mouthed smile recall the famous still from American Psycho where Bateman is holding a similar expression, but with blood splattered across his face.

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Bale as Michael Burry in The Big Short

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Bale as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho

This is not to suggest that Bale is simply reenacting Patrick Bateman — perhaps cinema’s most notorious financier — with his performance of Michael Burry. Rather, The Big Short portrays Burry as a kind of gentle giant, so the associations conjured by the nods to Bateman have a more ambient impact. Their effect is primarily thematic, invoking the popular notion that the excesses of finance can be attributed to antisocial behavior. This, of course, is the case made by American Psycho, where not only has the murderous Bateman been allowed to thrive, but his behavior is also ignored by his colleagues and peers. In the provincial universe of that film, it is a combination of extreme antisocial behavior, the failure of others to intervene, and vapid, juvenile materialism that explains the excesses of Wall Street.

These themes were resurrected by Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), though the emphasis there was less on individual pathology and more on materialism and juvenilia. So if it seems a stretch to argue that The Big Short is deliberately invoking past filmic portrayals of Wall Street with the casting of Bale and admittedly subtle nods to American Psycho in the mise-en-scène, consider the actress that McKay enlists for the film’s first celebrity cameo: Margot Robbie, who broke out to international fame and critical acclaim as the wife of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), the depraved tycoon at the center of Wolf. In that film she is principally a sex object. (Whether or not this portrayal is self-critical is up for debate.) Both her function in the film and the extravagance of her character’s lifestyle are invoked in Robbie’s Big Short cameo, in which she explains subprime mortgages while sipping champagne in a bubble bath overlooking the ocean. Indeed, similarities in décor suggest she may well be in the same extravagant beach house that she and DiCaprio visit in The Wolf of Wall Street.

The strategic deployment of Robbie and Bale demonstrates how The Big Short uses actors as signifiers, figures whose circulation in the cultural economy causes them to invoke certain associations. In this way, the two most famous recent Hollywood films about Wall Street cast a shadow on its latest take. But the antisocial and juvenile men of The Big Short do not stand in for Wall Street writ large as they do in American Psycho and The Wolf of Wall Street; instead, they are portrayed as part of its unwelcome fringe.

“While the whole world was having a big ol’ party, a few outsiders and weirdos saw what no one else could,” Gosling announces in his opening narration. The subsequent scenes introduce us to each of our protagonists, highlighting their “outsider” and “weirdo” qualities. First it’s Bale’s benignly awkward Michael Burry, conducting a stilted meeting with his new employee. Next it’s Mark Baum (Steve Carell), who interrupts his group therapy meeting to opine on the greed and depravity of another financier, argues with the moderator when she accuses him of hijacking the meeting, and then abruptly leaves to take a call. With his character’s utter inability to interact comfortably with others, Carrell, too, invokes his most famous role: Michael Scott in the television series The Office. (Coincidentally, perhaps, one formal constant of The Big Short is the handheld, faux-documentary cinematography made popular by that series.) Although Baum himself never cracks a smile, his investment team gives off a raucous fraternity vibe: the discussion of swollen genitalia that introduces them would feel perfectly at home in any of McKay’s previous films.

The film follows these protagonists, their investigation of the US housing market, and the bold — and ultimately lucrative — bets that they make against it. What’s interesting, though, is that the juvenile and antisocial qualities that distinguish them aren’t portrayed as a wider feature of Wall Street culture. The Big Short is, in one sense, about our protagonists’ search for a villain as formidable as the crisis they identify. But the further up the food chain they go, the more bland and collegial — in other words, the less like our heroes — the supposed villains become. The Wall Street insiders in the film are largely mild, smiling functionaries acting out institutional mandates. In this way, The Big Short breaks radically with Hollywood’s dominant portrayal of the industry by inverting the dichotomy between an aberrant, pathological Wall Street and the rest of us. With its formal brazenness as well as its nods to American Psycho and The Wolf of Wall Street, The Big Short promises us a look at America’s Gomorrah in lower Manhattan. Instead, it holds up a mirror.

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As the subtle nods to The Office suggest, the intertextual conversation about the US economy staged by The Big Short extends not just to Wall Street but also — to use a lazy rhetorical crutch from our most recent crisis — to Main Street. Brad Pitt’s late appearance in the film as Ben Rickert, the grizzled, no-bullshit veteran trader with unorthodox ideas, instantly recalls his performance as Billy Beane, the grizzled, no-bullshit Oakland A’s manager with unorthodox ideas in Moneyball (2011), another Michael Lewis adaptation. Pitt plays Beane and Rickert with a similar demeanor and delivers their lines with almost the exact same cadence.

Moneyball is a parable about the inevitable triumph of economic savvy over sentimentalism and tradition: Billy Beane manages the Oakland A’s as a ruthless technocrat, scrutinizing expenditures based on the number of wins that they are likely to produce. He disregards the conventional wisdom that baseball teams should pursue intangibles like talent and potential, focusing instead on metrics like on-base percentage. In other words, he exploits a deep, structural weakness at the heart of Major League Baseball’s economy. Once this effort is widely recognized as successful, he is rewarded with accolades and opportunities for material remuneration. In The Big Short, Pitt’s Rickert reluctantly fields a motley hedge fund’s request for assistance in their bet against the housing market. In other words, he too exploits a deep, structural weakness at the heart of the US economy and secures material remuneration by doing so. But in The Big Short he receives neither accolades nor redemption — indeed, none of the characters do.

Conventional wisdom suggests that recessions and their attendant hardships constitute a kind of macroeconomic tough love that forces the correction of society’s structural inefficiencies. The Big Short rejects this notion not only explicitly — Gosling’s postscript narration notes how the culpable institutions managed to protect their interests without fundamentally altering their behavior — but also implicitly with its rejection of the technocratic optimism of Moneyball. Economics 101 dictates that exposing a structural problem and exploiting it should compel the correction of said problem. But in The Big Short it compels nothing but retrenchment.

In this way The Big Short is a pessimistic corrective not only to the sociological determinism of past Hollywood films about Wall Street, but also to the muckraking enthusiasm of another Oscar nominee, Spotlight, which suggests that exposure of the hard and troubling facts can both compel reform and offer redemption. Indeed, that film’s success illustrates that Hollywood’s supposed liberalism stems not from its commitment to any political program but instead from the classically liberal ideology symbolized by the spotlight: the truth will win the day in the marketplace of ideas; the best argument for freedom of speech is the inevitable progress that results once the facts are made plain. In other words, as Stephen Colbert declared at the 2006 White House Correspondents dinner, “Reality has a well-known liberal bias.”

With its deft use of actors as signifiers — certainly subtle, but too pervasive to ignore — The Big Short summons the myths that Hollywood propagates about the alleged causes of and remedies for our society’s institutional crises. It exposes the ways in which these myths — cartoonish villains like Patrick Bateman and Jordan Belfort, archetypal heroes like Billy Beane — are essential props for liberalism itself, without which its faith in the power of truth-telling would no longer hold water.

Perhaps this refusal to engage in liberal mythologizing is behind the stoic defiance of the film’s stars’ poses for New York magazine. It’s also the quality that brings The Big Short much closer to the ethos of the actual Occupy movement — which was both celebrated and mocked for its embrace of inchoate protest and its disavowal of explicit, forward-looking policy programs — than any other Hollywood take on the crisis. Don’t come expecting us to give answers, McKay and his cast seem to say. We would prefer not to.

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John Thomason is a researcher for The Intercept. He lives in New York City.


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