Clenching the Nomination - The Big Short - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Clenching the Nomination – The Big Short

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Andrew discusses the scene in Adam McKay's The Big Short that he thinks secured the film's Best Picture nomination. You can check out all of our overall guesses on the major Oscar categories for 2016 here.

Clenching The Big ShortThe Big Short is the exact kind of movie vaguely liberal Hollywood likes to award.  I wasn't a fan.  While there was obvious passion and venom behind Adam McKay's direction it resulted in a product it purported to be critiquing.  I have a distaste for movies which say, "Oh, banks think you're dumb, so you need flashy images to understand banking," then bring in Selena Gomez to act through a hypothetical crisis at a casino.  It's not exactly hypocritical, but McKay's direction has a certain "having your cake and eating it too" quality about them.  For all the talk of how white men dazzle citizens to take part in risky securities investments, there's something deeply disappointing about watching the mostly white male cast flim-flam their way through the crisis under the direction of another white man.

While I was disappointed in The Big Short it's not without its moments.  The one which brings the crisis down to a dramatically satisfying human level is the least flashy.  Mark Baum's (Steve Carell) investigation of mortgages and securities-backed loans leads him to a strip club where one of the property owners works.  We're treated to the sight of Mark, who Carell plays with a situationally funny intensity as he ignores the naked women to focus on securities, having a conversation with a stripper. There's no breaking the fourth wall in this moment.  It's just Mark growing increasingly worried about the depths of the securities fraud while the stripper, initially humored, also becomes scared when she realizes how screwed she is.  The bombshell for the audience is when she reveals she not only has a house, but several homes and a condo.

The setting of this conversation is thematically richer than the aforementioned casino scene.  Casino's have a reputation for draining gamblers out of their money, but while the fantasy of winning is just that it's a fantasy which pays out for a lucky few.   Strip clubs are all fantasy, all the time.  Men and women are paid to cater to the whims of the patrons with no "payout".  This makes it the ideal setting for The Big Short, where the securities fraud seems like a bottomless pit of money but the fantasy breaks the second any one of those money pits fails to pay out.  McKay brilliantly runs the shattering of the two fantasies at once with the stripper's gradual realization of what's happening drawing the attention of a bouncer, just as Mark explains just how precarious her financial situation is.

My biggest issue with The Big Short is how the dazzle continues on with the protagonists becoming rich while the poor are still screwed over off-camera.  There's no deflection with star cameos, self-aware graphics, or fourth-wall breaking dialogue in this moment.  The visuals of the setting are so tightly intertwined with the profession of both characters and the products they sell that we feel the personal impact of economic loss when the stripper's face sinks at the end.  There are other moments which come close to the strip club scene, like when Mark's lackeys go through creepily abandoned neighborhoods when following the money trail, but the suffering of those who will be hit by the financial crisis is ancillary to the investigation being run by the main characters.

You could extend my critique of The Big Short's lack of diversity in the strip club scene as well.  It's just as emblematic of the flaws in McKay's storytelling as any other part of The Big Short.  But for one moment the fusion of social commentary, economic information, and absurd comic staging fuses into a moment of such blistering insight that I wish McKay cut the other shit out.

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Posted by Andrew

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