A Wolf in Short’s Clothing

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In the eight or so years since the financial meltdown that precipitated the Great Recession, there have been many attempts to figure out What the Hell Happened, and Why, and How, and What Did It Mean. Which makes sense, considering the (boundless, ongoing) impact of the crisis on the global population. In 2013, Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” made one such attempt by turning the clock back to the 1980′s to depict a culture of American financial greed and excess run rampant, a culture that ultimately encouraged and reproduced behaviors that led to the Recession two decades later. Scorsese’s picture aimed for an anthropological view, directly and intentionally avoiding hard discussions of finance in favor of a portrait of human behavior. It never explicitly drew connections to 2008, either, but Scorsese understood the context in which he was creating and releasing his film and the context in which audiences would watch it.

“Wolf” did not find a wholly sympathetic audience, to put it politely. While it received critical acclaim from many corners (Oscar nominations and all), many viewers found it disgusting or repulsive thanks to the marathon of debauchery at the center of its story. From one vantage point, to watch “The Wolf of Wall Street” is to watch a bunch of rich, white New York men do drugs, debase women, exploit middle America, spend obscenely, and engage in white collar crime for about three solid hours. This is basically accurate. Debates arose when some audiences found this depiction of Wall Street orgies to be gratuitous to the point of immorality, as though the filmmakers and cast were enjoying themselves too much, indulging their worst desires through mimicry.

And the film does not help itself here very much. It distinctly refrains from an outright declaration of a moral position on the events we’re witnessing. It never highlights the lives of those affected by the crimes its protagonists commit and doesn’t directly ask for its audience to consider the ethics of what’s playing out on screen. This can get deeply uncomfortable as the film rolls into its third hour, as a viewer who expected or hoped for some kind of decent moral perspective might begin to feel guilty for even watching the thing.

So now, two years later, we have “The Big Short,” which may not be a response to “Wolf” but certainly feels like it’s in dialogue with Scorsese’s film. “The Big Short,” directed by Adam McKay, takes place during the lead-up to and early days of the 2007 market rupture. Like “Wolf,” it also follows the adventures of a bunch of financial world assholes, but its approach is different in a few key ways.

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“The Big Short,” for one point of departure, makes the discussion of finance a crucial component of its narrative. More than that, the film wants to educate its audience on the financial mechanisms involved in the collapse of the economy. It commits a big chunk of its script to explanations of financial instruments, the ways in which banks and traders manipulated those instruments to exploit people, and, further, how regulators willfully ignored and benefited from this behavior. I think this is an admirable goal. The factors involved in the market collapse were so specialized and so removed from the daily considerations outside the financial world that they were nearly opaque. I have no idea if this film will actually help in that regard. It’s an enormous amount of information to condense into two hours. But it definitely puts in the effort.

The other major point of departure from “Wolf” is in the way “The Big Short” attempts to take a moral or ethical position on the events the film portrays. This is where things get weird.

That’s because “The Big Short” is a film about a half-dozen guys who learn that the American market is a ticking time bomb and use that information to make a staggering amount of money for themselves. They don’t commit any crimes in that process. But they do use information that was functionally unavailable to tens of millions of Americans – information that was being used to exploit those Americans – to bet against the greater American public for their own material advantage to the tune of somewhere over $1 billion (I don’t recall the exact number). And, hey, I understand the impulse here. Opportunities to make a clean quarter of a billion dollars per person don’t come around often for most of us. And again: they did nothing illegal. Whether or not they did anything unethical is another debate, of course.

What’s bizarre, to me, is the way “The Big Short” tries to have its cake and eat it, too, by being candid in its depiction of these decisions but by trying to situate its protagonists as a group of underdog heroes. It makes a series of narrative and directorial choices that are meant to generate sympathy for these characters – not just to create a more dimensioned, human portrait of these people, but to have the audience feel, in their gut, as though some moral and personal good is being achieved by these men.

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I’m not going claim that the decisions these men made were totally morally bankrupt or that these men are inherently bad people (I mean, I did call them “assholes” a few paragraphs ago, but that’s different). I think one could make an argument there, but I’m not going to do it right now. I think a safer argument might be that their actions were, at best, amoral. But this is not really the argument the film wants to make, and instead it seems to invest in the idea that cunning or savvy is a kind of moral good in itself. The film positions its cast as a group of intelligent contrarians who stand against both the rank and file and the elites of the finance world, and it repeatedly refers to everyone they’re up against as “stupid.”

More to the point, their journey is crafted using cinematic techniques that pit them like the up-and-comers in a sports movie, with a series of setbacks and victories that eventually lead them to The Big Win (or Short, I guess. fuck). We get biographical details that fill in the tragic personal histories of some of these men so we can better sympathize.

I don’t fault the film for trying to humanize these people. I think that’s a worthwhile endeavor. But the film isn’t trying to create a complicated, human portrait of a bunch of investors who made some inarguably self-serving decisions during the crisis. Its goal is to create a sense of drama, of pathos, to get the audience to feel emotionally riveted during scenes that revolve around buying and selling insurance bets. The result is that the film’s emotional climax – where the editing and scoring and dialogue and pacing all head for heightened emotional intensity – centers on scenes where Christian Bale and Steve Carrell earn eye-watering profits but feel sort of glum about it. The audience is expected to feel something bittersweet here, I suppose – like we’ve won something, but at what cost?

This feels pretty absurd to me. I’m sure these people felt some remorse or hesitation about what they were doing, but being asked to cheer them on and feel their sorrows with them is a very strange request. Because I’m not quite sure what good has been achieved here other than financial gain, a financial gain not dissimilar to the kind enjoyed by the “stupid” finance workers the film spends so much time railing against.

If the film is trying to draw a connection here, to imply some shared impulse and shade its argument with moral ambiguity, it doesn’t do a great job of it. The idea that the protagonists’ behavior is not meritorious is only paid lip service in a handful of scenes. The most notable of these is one in which Brad Pitt tells the two men he’s working with to stop celebrating after they realize how much money they stand to make from their bet. He gives a few statistics about inequality in America and states that they ought to understand that they are betting directly against the American people. And that’s about as far as it goes. Any further exploration of these themes is largely dismissed by the overall dramatic arc of the film. (This discussion is also literally dismissed by Ryan Gosling’s character at the end of the film, who, in a voiceover directed to the audience, admits he earned something like 47 million dollars from the ordeal but basically concludes with “so what?”)

Eventually, we are supposed to believe that the ingenuity and stubbornness of this group is worth celebrating. Their intellectual superiority is asserted and rewarded, and their victory overwhelms any substantial discussion of the ethics of their behavior. It’s a movie about the Little Guys taking on the Big Guys, except it doesn’t want people to recognize that everyone here is a Big Guy in comparison to the majority of the audience. And it uses that scene with Pitt to assuage any lingering, post-”Wolf of Wall Street” guilt the audience might be feeling about how much they’re enjoying watching white men in New York finance pull in enormous profits. It’s a wink toward a moral conscience.

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“Wolf” does not include a similar concession, although I don’t think the film endorses the lifestyle it exhibits. It seems to me that Scorsese wants his viewers to enjoy themselves until they feel repulsed, and then to question how they could ever find any of this entertaining in the first place. He wants the audience to become a participant in the experience, to critically engage with what they’ve watched and how they feel about it. There’s also a broader cultural indictment happening. But most of this is not stated as explicitly as the attempt at moral acknowledgement in “The Big Short.” This can make for a distressing experience, and one that doesn’t work – at all! – for a whole lot of people. It’s a difficult task, anyway, and a whole lot of people felt that the film didn’t accomplish it.

The problem with the approach “The Big Short” takes is that, by relieving the audience of that need to critique what they’re watching, it eventually asks the audience to cheer on the kind of attitude that was so reviled in “Wolf.” With its quick dialogue, its stylized editing and cinematography, its brisk pace, with all of these elements, it wants to entertain in the same way that “Wolf” does, only it purports to be morally-minded somewhere along the line. Instead, it tips its hand. “The Big Short” valorizes a familiar avarice. It congratulates a dedication to outmaneuvering and outsmarting others to make huge sums of money for yourself. It’s a sort of selfish financial meritocracy, not at all unlike the kind witnessed in “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

That the major players in “The Big Short” did not commit actual crimes is significant but not decisive. The attitude that the film encourages doesn’t necessarily, or historically, discriminate. It isn’t compelled to observe the boundaries between legal and illegal, moral and immoral, altruistic and selfish. “Wolf” asks its viewers to consider why that is. “The Big Short” tells you it’s fine not to worry about it.

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