Breaking the Fourth Wall in the Era of Fraud

It’s movie night. You’re going to the cinema with your mates, your partner, whoever it might be. You are trying to agree on a film to see.

“What’s this one about?”

“Something about the housing crash.”

“Right. What else is on?”

It is an understandably weary subject to return to, especially now, eight years after the fact. There have been films, documentaries, TV specials, news bulletins, newspaper exposés, and homemade YouTube rants, all of which have covered this topic ad nauseum. So when you go to the cinema tonight, what is it about The Big Short that is going to make you go and see it?

What this film does well is approach it in a funny way and make it accessible. Neither of those things are particularly original or groundbreaking concepts with something like this, but how they go about it is interesting.

Throughout the film characters turn their attention to the audience, sometimes to explain something complicated, but on other occasions to say “this didn’t happen exactly this way but makes it more interesting, trust us.” Every film ‘based on a true story’ does it, but this is the first I have come across that openly admits it. We meet Ryan Gosling’s character, Deutsche Bank’s Jared Vennett, in a bar breaking the fourth wall. “I would never hang out with these idiots. I had fashion friends,” he explains.

Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling in The Big Short

It’s not the first nor the last time the fourth wall is broken, but it’s still taboo in the film industry. You just don’t see it happen, and yet it occurs time and again here, not just with co-lead character and narrator Vennett, but with other characters too.

It would be a bit much to say director Adam McKay has flipped the ‘true story’ genre on its head, but by openly saying “this and this and this didn’t happen exactly like this” he is paradoxically lending his work a level of credibility and validity that it wouldn’t otherwise have.

The audience knows that true stories on the screen aren’t 100% fact. After all, there are always three sides to any story: my side, your side, and the truth. By purposely toying with the truth, McKay is using a clever framing technique that exposes the “era of fraud”, as Mark Baum, played by Steve Carrell, puts it. On a television screen we see images of The Hills reality show, Barry Bonds, and Lance Armstrong, all symbolic pillars in an age of fraudulence. Politics, business, sport, journalism, TV, film; none of them can be taken at face value.

Of course, the audience also needs to comprehend the heavy subject matter to a certain extent. In a roundtable interview this past December, McKay is quoted by Way Too Indie as saying: “I just felt like the movies had to be inclusive. One of the ways the banks get away with ripping us off is by making us feel stupid or bored by financial talk. I wanted to open it up in a fun way because, once you get it, it’s a really energetic, exciting world.”

The Wall Street jargon is an obstacle that McKay bypasses with style, breaking down those barriers to understanding as well as the fourth wall using practical examples and star cameos, featuring the likes of Selena Gomez, Anthony Bourdain and Margot Robbie. “I figure if a college dropout who directed Step Brothers can understand it, the rest of the audience can,” he adds. (Essentially, everything is one giant vacuous betting slip, which is ironic because isn’t gambling legally restricted in the United States?)


The star cast helps, mind. Steve Carrell has completed his transformation from comedy king to drama queen in exquisite fashion, following up on his starring role in the critically acclaimed Foxcatcher. Although Carrell leans on his comedic expertise to great effect in The Big Short, he has made the kind of turn that other wisecracks, such as Jim Carrey, have been heavily criticised for in the past.

Elsewhere, Jared “jacked to the tits” Vennett is probably the funnest character Ryan Gosling has played yet, while Brad Pitt’s relatively small role for such a big name actor (which was also the case with his part in 12 Years A Slave) is a welcome addition. Christian Bale turns in an excellent performance as the impossibly awkward hedge fund manager Michael Burry, but we can’t let John Magaro and Finn Wittrock go under the radar. The two men are perfect as Charlie Geller and Jamie Shipley, the dorky duo trying to get a seat at the big boys’ table. And if ever there was a man destined to play a ‘Vinnie’, it was Jeremy Strong.

It’s fair to say this is a serious film that doesn’t take itself overly seriously. There are a bucket load of jokes and funny lines in this film, but it also touches on a raft of significant and important issues in modern life. Suicide, family, bankruptcy (both the financial and moral kinds), unemployment, eviction, homelessness. All of these feature at some point, either directly or on a subtle level. There is a realness to the ridiculousness.

The end is inevitable. We know what happens, we’ve lived it, so the potential for anti-climax is strong. Nonetheless the journey there is entertaining and gripping. The individual stories, the tension, the characters are what make it so. Right up until the end everything is at stake; our protagonists could lose millions, and while it would be satisfying to see a “real grade A asshole” lose their fortune, their careers might suffer even if they are right.

You might think you’ve heard all there is to hear about the recession, but The Big Short tells the story you haven’t come across in a way you haven’t seen before now.


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