What is it about bankers and the fourth wall? Just like the banking institutions they work in, the lives of ordinary people, and the global economy, they can’t help but break it. Writer/director Adam McKay’s The Big Short is the latest film dealing with the blind greed of bankers, and just like Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), it makes a stylistic tic out of breaking the fourth wall. But what effect does this technique have and what does it say about the noughties’ economic crisis?
Breaking the fourth wall refers to any instance where the characters stop interacting with the people in the film, and instead talk to camera, looking straight through the screen, at the audience. Probably the most famous example before now is in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, where the eponymous teen truant regularly addresses the camera and the audience with words of wisdom. The reasons the technique was used then are much the same as they are now. It establishes a kind of superiority in the wall-breaking characters – no one else in the film has this rare power to escape their world – and also an advisory tone; the wall-breakers in cinema are nearly always teaching or lecturing the audience about something.
Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) in The Wolf of Wall Street and Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) in The Big Short follow the lead of Ferris, establishing a superiority over the audience (nearly always in charisma rather than morals) and teaching them something, whether it’s how to make millions, how the banking crash happened or how to bunk off school.
Many people have criticised The Big Short for this patronising tone, claiming it insults their intelligence by dumbing down the economic crisis. It’s hard to argue with that; after all, The Big Short does feature a gratuitous scene of Margot Robbie in a bubble bath sipping champagne as she explains sub-prime mortgages. But if that scene is insulting to anyone it’s not the audience, it’s Margot Robbie. Critics of the film might feel patronised, but the reality of the situation is that sub-prime mortgages and collateralised debt obligations (CDOs) were far too complicated or much too inconvenient a truth for millions of ordinary Americans and even the bankers who in theory created and managed them. By smashing down the fourth wall and offering an idiot’s guide to banking Adam McKay guarantees that this time, in retrospect if nothing else, people won’t be able to misunderstand or ignore what caused the banking crash.
For the most part, The Big Short’s fourth-wall-breaking reads as: “Can you believe they/I got away with that shit?” Aside from the more obvious pieces-to-camera, this is most evident in a late scene where one banker keeps glancing into the camera during a dialogue exchange. He does it almost accidentally, and for a moment you wonder whether it’s a piece of poor direction where the actor flubbed his performance and McKay never corrected him. But then you realise it’s highlighting the absurdity of the banking crash and the guilt of its perpetrators. The character is silently asking: “Is this really happening? Am I getting away with this?” Unbelievably, the answer is yes.
As Jared explains at one point, the banks make what they do so confusing on purpose, so that the average customer won’t be able to argue back or question the status quo. Amidst a tsunami of jargon, bullshit and statistical analyses, the fourth-wall-breaking demystifies that glossary of greed and makes it abundantly clear what was going on at the banks in the mid-noughties. Again, patronising but necessary. Whenever Jared Vennett breaks the fourth wall like a junior Jordan Belfort, he becomes a symbol of honesty, one of the few people telling the truth in a world of liars. Unlike his predecessor Jordan Belfort, who broke the fourth wall in order to glorify his life of excess and cloak it with a sheen of respectability, Jared is ripping off the rose-tinted spectacles and revealing the banking world for what it is. When he turns to the camera, he’s turning away from and excluding everyone around him, the idiot hordes of the banking industry, and saying: “Let me tell you a secret”. He’s privileging the audience because they are the victims in this situation. In many ways, every time he breaks the fourth wall it’s an apology for what the banks did.
But it’s also a lesson for ordinary Americans. By accepting ludicrously generous mortgages and buying houses they knew they couldn’t afford, they signed their own bankruptcy orders. McKay doesn’t want them to make that mistake again. Yes, the bankers should take the majority of the blame because they were meant to be the ones with the expertise and the responsibility to manage these complex financial creations, but average citizens aren’t faultless either. Just look at the stripper Mark Baum (Steve Carell) interviews who admits she owns five homes on sub-prime mortgages. Not because she needs them or because she can afford them, but because the offer was there. She and countless others should have heeded the old adage that if it looks too good to be true, then it probably is.
Every time McKay has one of his characters break the fourth wall, he’s rubbing the audience’s noses in whatever point he’s trying to make, and most of the time in The Big Short that point is: the banks were too greedy and ignorant, the people were too greedy and ignorant – learn from your mistakes. Putting even some of the blame on ordinary people is a hard sell because this tragedy already has its villains and they’re oh-so-easy to hate. That’s why the criticism of ordinary people’s spending habits is smuggled in behind the fourth wall. You can’t make a film slagging your audience off or they’d never sit in a cinema and watch it.
If McKay is criticising the average recipient of a sub-prime mortgage then it’s only with a slap on the wrist, compared to the full-body beatdown he delivers to bankers. His primary aim isn’t to insult or critique anybody, but to warn us all, bankers and average Joes alike, not to let this happen again. That much is clear from the film’s final frames which sarcastically claim that of course everybody learned from the banking crisis, bankers were punished and nobody blamed immigrants or poor people. Even worse, some banks are now rolling out a new product which is a sub-prime mortgage by another name. If there’s one lesson to learn from The Big Short it’s that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.