Although most pundits (except me, Mike Burry, M.D.) were predicting either Spotlight, Mad Max or The Revenant to win, The Big Short came up the big surprise at the Producers Guild Awards tonight, along with the expected wins for Amy and Inside Out. What was it that gave some of us hope and cautious confidence? The Big Short is the only film that has SAG Awards Ensemble/ACE Eddie/DGA/PGA and BAFTA nominations. It is well liked across the board, which on paper gives it the advantage. But we didn’t know until tonight if this would be the year these reliable stats would fail. So far anyway, it looks like our Oscar model is a solid success. Next up, the SAG Awards on January 30th, and after that the ACE, WGA and DGA.
The Big Short is such a good movie that it may take several viewings to realize just how good it is. Every character is carefully considered and written with a rich blend of flaws and honorable traits. Most films made these days don’t take time to construct layered characters the way Adam McKay has done, working with screenwriter Charles Randolph from Michael Lewis’s book. Characters so specific that you barely notice it the first time through. There’s more than that, of course, driving it through to a win.
This is an election year and Wall Street is front and center. Market manipulations should matter to you whether you’re a Bernie supporter, a Hillary supporter, or a supporter of any GOP candidate. People of all political persuasions remain rightfully angry that no one was prosecuted and most of us resent the fact that Wall Street execs, bankers and brokers gambled with our money, lost big time, and still walked away rich with the American taxpayers bailing them out. We should all be angry about that, no matter which party we want to run the country. The Big Short exposes the rigged con-game better than any other movie ever made about Wall Street and, thanks to Michael Lewis’s scathing approach, it satirizes the people involved while painting a crystal clear picture of the crazy, conflicted world where we find ourselves ensnared.
The Wolf of Wall Street, in contrast, was about a more ruthless kind of financial thievery — crooks who walk away rich with no conscience and no regrets. The Big Short isn’t about those people. It’s about a few smart investors who saw the banks were committing fraud and bet against the game on the eve of the housing market crisis. When it became clear that the banks themselves were betting against millions of homeowners, a handful of money managers tried to sound the alarm about the extent of the damage about to rain down. But the rotten foundation inevitably gave way and the Jenga towers began to collapse all around them. The catastrophe left many cocky deal-makers hollowed out and forever changed. There is no forgiveness granted here, nor any real redemption, but there are three-dimensional humans worth caring about. The story works for audiences because people all across the country are angry, but it also works on its own as a brilliantly written, carefully acted and energetically directed American film of the first order.
The Big Short taking the PGA’s top honor tonight shows that the Oscar stats we use as our trusty barometers are once again proven valid. At least for now. In such a wide-open race anything can happen. What probably happened with the Producers Guild was that The Revenant and Fury Road may have divided the vote for epic virtuosity. Without either one of these two, the other might have built enough momentum to surpass The Big Short. But with two technically impressive visual epics, all the producers who weren’t voting for the more literate dialogue-driven duo — The Big Short or Spotlight — would have their votes split up between two sweeping extravaganzas.
That left another large segment of the guild to choose between Spotlight and The Big Short. Both are films that would be likely to figure prominently in the number one and number two slots on the preferential ballot. But The Big Short has several things that Spotlight doesn’t. Perhaps first and foremost it has a greater sense of urgency for voters because it’s an election year and people are thinking about politics. Spotlight’s issue is of course immensely important, but the movie itself encourages the feeling that child abuse in the Catholic church is matter that, if not fixed, is at least under better control. The Big Short leaves us with no such sense of security. It ends on a note that lets us know this global financial time-bomb is ongoing and may even be poised to blow up all over again. That urgency is certainly part of its appeal. But even without the political component The Big Short might have won because there’s such flair in its acting, writing and directing. It’s exuberant in a way that Spotlight is not, dynamic in a way that excites people.
There’s that final moment in The Big Short when our narrator, Jared Vennett, pulls a last fast one. With a sly grin he says it all turned out for the better: the crooks on Wall Street went to jail, the government instituted strict regulations, and everyone learned a hard lesson. He pauses, and then says: “Just kidding.” Then he tells us what really happened, reminding us of the grim reality. That short-circuit verbal jump-cut between what we all know to be true and the way he frames the joke as if he’s trying to once again to pull the wool over our eyes is the cinematic moment of the year. There isn’t an audience in any town in America that wouldn’t react to that, especially a town like LA where everyone with a ballot has a hefty stock portfolio too. So even if The Big Short didn’t seem to be generating the kind of extreme passion that The Revenant was getting, it’s apparently giving enough voters plenty of meat to chew on. It’s well liked by almost everyone and hated by very few.
Does all this mean The Big Short wins Best Picture? It means it just got a really good turbo boost to the head of the pack, and yeah, it could very likely go all the way. I would hold off on saying for sure, though. I would hold off because of the kind of disjointed year it’s been. While there isn’t really enough time to turn the ship around once the consensus starts to build, with just a few short weeks here before the rest of the guilds weigh in and Oscar ballots about to be sent out, The Big Short just got a lot more attractive as the safest best at the moment to win.
Fun fact: if Adam McKay wins Best Director he will be the first American-born director to win the Oscar since Kathryn Bigelow won in 2009, five long years ago. Fun fact #2: The Big Short and Mad Max:Fury Road are the only two films in the Best Picture race that feature black women in speaking roles. The only two.