“I’m guessing most of you still don’t really know what happened? Yeah, you got a sound bite you repeat so you don’t sound dumb, but come on.” — Jared Vennet
By Reed Brewer
I sat dumbfounded in the theater, my eyes fixed to the ending credits of Adam McKay’s The Big Short. No way this happened like this, I attempted to reassure myself. I kept stressing that this was merely fiction—more similar to McKay’s Anchorman than the documentary Inside Job. Sure, I admitted, some of this was true, but it couldn’t have been this fucking stupid.
McKay anticipates my doubtfulness of his film, as he adjusts his cinematography—often mid-scene—to mimic a more direct, documentary style. His first financial guru, Michael Burry (Christian Bale), looks directly into the lens during his introduction, staring at me head-on. The camera shakes and has difficulty finding focus, as though McKay is setting up for an interview. I don’t bite on McKay’s shifty faux cinema verite, as my stubbornness to disprove is far too headstrong for an astute filmic analysis.
It doesn’t take a scholar to understand that McKay is attempting to teach. Throughout the film, celebrities like Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain, and Selena Gomez interject into the narrative to elaborate further on the characters’ actions. It is in these sequences where McKay provides me a primitive vocabulary which I use to make sense of the business jargon, albeit I do so in piecemeal fashion.
I left the theatre determined to dismiss the validity of the film, and I drove to my mom’s office in downtown Little Rock, hoping to find some semblance of truth.
Though, I had plenty of chances to conduct this fact-finding mission years before, something which Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) reminds me as the film opens. He mockingly informs that the film’s protagonists did what I and countless others never thought to do: “They looked.”
I rode the elevator to the top floor of her office building and found that she—like so many times before—was the only person on the floor, the only one still at work. I knocked, and she waved me in. She turned away from her bright screens and aging calculator to greet me with a warm smile and an expected “What’s up?”
I told her I just watched The Big Short. She said she’s seen the advertisements, but wasn’t particularly interested. (Her attraction to Brad Pitt has long expired, as she considered his split with Jennifer Aniston “typical male bullshit.”) I began my line of questioning about the plot, and—to my surprise—she confirms most of it. She even said she attempted the practice of “shorting,” but was dismissed by coworkers. Shocked, I asked why hadn’t she said more about it to me. She laughed and said she had, I just didn’t listen.
Her office has always been haphazardly organized, mountains of yellowing paperwork stacked perilously high and buttressed solely by outdated tax codes. File cabinets filled with decades-old tax returns and floppy disks she dare not toss-out encase her dwarfed desk. A comparison between her office and Burry’s nontraditional workspace was so obvious, I was dismayed I hadn’t made it while watching the actual film. (While she doesn’t blast heavy metal tunes like Burry, the television playing cable news in the corner helps complete the analogy nicely.)
No, I told myself. Stop trying to make comparisons, I said, actually listen this time.
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Explaining her job was never easy. While her business card read Chief Financial Officer, she has long maintained various other titles that muddle up an easily articulated job description. The shoptalk she brought home inevitably soared far above my head, as I struggled to grasp even the simplest concepts of “the financial crisis.”
I remember her talking about sub-prime mortgages and credit default swaps before seeing the terms dominate headlines on CNN. But being just a high schooler, I neglected any further inquiries. As the summer wound down before my sophomore year, I remember her typical unruffled demeanor souring with conspicuous worry. Her hours got longer and phone calls shorter. I should have asked more, but I didn’t. I was young and dutifully distracted.
McKay understands that this business mumbo jumbo is designed to distract. He knows that the mere thought of interest rates and synthetic collateralized debt obligations can sedate most accountants. He also is aware that confusion is how these bastards got away with billions in the first place.
My mom carefully answered all of my questions that day. She asked why all of sudden I wanted to know everything, considering it was nearly a decade too late. I said I felt like I should know. Then I realized why I drove so fervently to her office. I wasn’t trying to disprove the history laid out in the film, I was trying to rewrite my own past ignorance. I wanted to prove to McKay that I could pay attention, that I could just “look.”
I asked my mom if she would be interested in watch the film now that she had seen how inspired I was to learn. She still declined. This time I pressed her on why. She said she didn’t want to be told something she already knew.
Damn, I thought, she is right.
Those scenes with Robbie, Bourdain, and Gomez are not only there to instruct, they are also there to mock. McKay uses them to ridicule my inability to focus on the terminology that ruined the lives of so many.
In one of these scenes, Robbie is drinking champagne in a bubble bath. As she tells me about the practice of bundling mortgages together, McKay dares me not to pay attention. He baits me into ignoring her vocabulary lesson and instead pay attention to her sexualized depiction. McKay knows that I am just waiting for a distraction so I don’t have to pay attention, or so I don’t have to feel dumb.
To my mom, these sequences would likely feel insulting. She after all paid attention and did what she could to warn me. But, I think McKay would say the movie isn’t for her. It’s for us idiots who didn’t know how to care.
After our conversation, I headed back to my car. She stayed in her office and went back to work. I still couldn’t help but think of an analogy, as I drove home. I eventually settled on how her continuing to work was fitting, as that’s what McKay tells us to do at the end of The Big Short.