About a month ago, the Producers Guild Awards handed Best Feature to The Big Short. The scuttlebutt held that the PGA, nervous by the post-New Year stock market tumble, felt the need to praise a film that arguably valorized bankers. Ryan Adams of Awards Daily tweeted that “it almost seemed like producers invested in the stock market.”
The likes of Scott Rudin and Harvey Weinstein almost certainly know about diverse portfolios. But if capitalism has to take a few hits so a film about how bankers played god, to put it kindly, can gain more publicity, I’ll happily pay to see it a third time. (Update: As of this writing I’ve seen the film four times.)
I could laud any number of things about The Big Short: the bravura direction, commanding performances by some of Hollywood’s finest male actors, tough-as-nails adapted screenplay, quicksilver editing that establishes a potent blend of detail, setting, and mood. The film’s ace in the hole is its use of non-diegetic music. Or, in less pretentious terms, the following trio on its soundtrack:
“Money Maker” by Ludacris: Released in the summer of 2006, and co-performed with Pharrell (long before his “Happy” uber-fame), “Money Maker” won Ludacris the 2007 Grammy for Best Rap Song. In the film, the song backs the sequence where idiosyncratic hedge fund manager Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale in peak chameleon form) buys hundreds of millions in credit-default swaps at banks, including Goldman Sachs, Bear Stearns, and Lehman Brothers. The well-dressed bankers who accept Burry’s money laugh, luxuriously, as he exits their conference rooms. Their heads are tilted back in smug satisfaction, their clapping hands silenced by the lyrics: “You know I got it/if you wanna come get it/stand next to this money/like ay, ay, ayyy!”
The Big Short uses songs to rocket the viewer directly to that moment in time: we’re watching a film-length flashback. But the montage of Burry’s visits to banks is also interspersed with clips from the song’s music video: a central chorus line of lithe dancers in tight black bikinis, Louboutin stilettos, and gold jewelry; heaps of neatly packaged $100 bills. Housing loans were enriching the banks so rapidly that the profits’ migration into subprime territory was as inconsequential as the identities of the many scantily clad females writhing around Ludacris and Pharrell. A few women literally turn into scattered flaming dollars—or blow a kiss to money flowing from their pursed lips—and back again into simmering objects of desire. This money was too easy to make: realtors and brokers giving mortgages to people with neither credit scores nor jobs; large banks bundling low-quality mortgages then labelled AAA by rating agencies. Melissa Leo makes a particularly impressive cameo as a Standard & Poor’s employee who explains the reasoning for AAA and AA ratings: “If I say no they’ll take it to Moody’s—just down the block.” My skin crawled during every single viewing.
“Feel Good Inc.” by Gorillaz: Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro) are hedge fund greenhorns. Their decent returns, as a faux-polite JP Morgan Chase employee informs the duo (in the bank’s lobby, no less), are nowhere near the $1 billion-odd you need to do business with major financial institutions. Despondent, they come across banker Jared Vennett’s (a delightful smarmy Ryan Gosling) paper about credit default swaps. Jamie rings up his friend and neighbor Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), a retired and disenchanted banker. Getting a hold of Ben is tough: he’s a tad paranoid and has 14 phone numbers. Pitt should do this sort of thing more often, he’s a natural.
“Feel Good Inc.” kicks in when Ben agrees to help Charlie and Jamie get their ISDA. (An ISDA is a master agreement that, if I may mix metaphors for a second, lets small fish sit at the grownups’ table.) The pair jump for joy in their humble New York City office; cut to Ben, ripping tags off new ties in the offices of Goldman Sachs/Deutsche/etc., supervising Charlie and Jamie’s paperwork. Gorillaz’s more wistful chorus and De La Soul’s raucous verse analogizes their journey: we’re guided from Charlie and Jamie’s humiliation (“You won’t get out the county cause you’re bad and free/You got a new horizon, it’s ephemeral style”) to two eager boys and a glum man signing contracts with big banks all over New York City (“Gonna bite the dust, can’t fight with us/With yo’ sound you kill the Inc/So don’t stop, get it, get it”).
“When the Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin: The song isn’t technically part of the film because it plays over the end credits. But damn does it give the phrase “makin’ it rain” a new and unwelcome connotation. Jimmy Page’s riff rasps slowly over the film’s final onscreen warning: As of 2010, “bespoke tranche opportunities” were once again being sold on Wall Street. A bespoke tranche opportunity is another name for a collateralized debt obligation (CDO), the same bundles of mortgages S&P and Moody’s were rating AAA when they were in fact, to use Mark Baum’s (Steve Carell, on tragicomic steroids) terminology, “dog shit wrapped in cat shit.” Using a 1971 Led Zeppelin hit about floods might seem a bit on-the-nose. I think it’s perfect. I know this because I was seething when the song breaks over the credits. The banks were bailed out, and have resumed business. What’s the layman to do? “Crying won’t help you, praying won’t do you no good/Now, crying won’t help you, praying won’t do you no good/When the levee breaks, mama, you got to move.”
You can listen to the ‘Giant Pool of Money’ episode of This American Life, or read Too Big to Fail. But The Big Short is the best explanation of the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression. You won’t feel well as the credits roll, but then, neither did the economy when Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns went straight out of business. No one went to jail, banks weren’t broken up by the government, and the SEC remains toothless. As for Oscar chances, I think Adam McKay’s got a solid shot at Best Director, but the film’s real hero is editor Hank Corwin. An AE on another Michael Lewis book adaptation (Moneyball), and a two-time Terence Malick editor (Tree of Life and The New World), Corwin’s eye for cuts that are emotionally jarring and cinematically arresting hasn’t, in my mind, been topped this year. Break a leg, gentlemen.