‘The Big Short’: Will financial satire cash in at Oscars like ‘Wolf of Wall Street’?

Will "The Big Short" cash in at the Oscars? It could ride the wave of increased attention on financial justice largely brought about by the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders. Several high-profile celebs are already feeling the Bern and, in what is still a fairly wide-open Oscar race, there's room for a film like this to tap into the zeitgeist. And there's plenty of precedent for Wall Street-themed movies to break through with academy voters.

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The seriocomic film takes place during the build-up to the housing-market crash that started the Great Recession in 2008. A handful of bankers see the writing on the wall – companies were getting rich on risky mortgage loans and the bottom was about to fall out – so they bet against the market in the hopes of big payouts.

Since the 2008 economic crash, several films have been made depicting this crisis in particular and the financial world in general. "Inside Job" won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 2010 for covering much of the same ground as "The Big Short." Then in 2011 the fictional "Margin Call" approached the crisis on a smaller scale, telling the story of one investment bank over one day at the dawn of the collapse; its writer J.C. Chandor earned an Oscar bid for Best Original Screenplay.

In 2013 Martin Scorsese addressed this world peopled with unscrupulous financiers with "The Wolf of Wall Street," starring Leonardo DiCaprio as real-life crooked stockbroker Jordan Belfort. While that film took place years before the 2008 crash, it tapped into our culture's renewed distrust of financial institutions. "Wolf" reaped nominations for Picture, Director, Actor (DiCaprio), Supporting Actor (Jonah Hill) and Adapted Screenplay but didn't win any of its races. 

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"The Big Short" plays like a cross between the biting satire of "Wolf," the whip-smart dialogue of "Margin Call" and the comprehensive analysis of "Inside Job." It's based on a book by Michael Lewis, who also penned the source material for previous Oscar-contenders "The Blind Side" and "Moneyball." The script by director Adam McKay and Charles Randolph, which makes these complex financial transactions accessible to a mainstream audience, could be a contender for Best Adapted Screenplay.

The film juggles multiple characters and cutaways, cleverly explaining financial esoterica like bundled mortgages and CDOs with celebs including Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez playing themselves, so the complex editing work by Hank Corwin becomes almost another character in the film, itself worthy of Oscar consideration.

Then there's the cast, which is stacked with academy favorites: Oscar-champs Christian Bale and Brad Pitt and Oscar-nominees Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling, in addition to notable supporting roles played by Finn Wittrock, Melissa Leo, Marisa Tomei, Rafe Spall and Hamish Linklater. A film with such a deep bench could appeal to SAG voters for Best Ensemble, but among the individual performances, Carell probably has the best chance of gaining awards traction.

Carell plays Mark Baum, which is the meatiest role in terms of character backstory and emotional arc. He's arrogant and angry, a surrogate for the outrage of the audience and the closest thing the film has to a moral center. He also has a family tragedy that grounds his know-it-all bluster in personal loss.

After years as a TV comedian in "The Daily Show" and "The Office," Carell proved his dramatic mettle last year as a murderous billionaire in "Foxcatcher," which earned him an Oscar bid for Best Actor. The academy may be in a honeymoon period with Carell, which could result in a second straight nomination just like it has for other actors who have strung together multiple nominated performances, like Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in recent years. Carell is the only "Big Short" cast member being campaigned in lead, but the star wattage of the supporting players is so blinding that it may dim his chance to win, if he makes the cut.

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In addition to the film's lack of a central character, it also lacks a clear-cut hero. Like "Spotlight," the film uncovers deeply entrenched corruption in a once-trusted institution, but unlike crusading reporters exposing child abuse, the characters in "The Big Short" are mostly aiming to cash in on the collapse of the global economy. Rather than go public about the fraud in the housing market, they keep their newfound knowledge to themselves for as long as possible to maximize their profits.

The Emmys may go in for all that antihero stuff, but the Oscars still usually prefer their heroes unsullied, which may be one reason "The Wolf of Wall Street" earned nominations but not wins. Then again, the academy has been known to go dark from time to time, as it did by awarding Best Picture to the crooks and thieves of "The Departed" and "No Country for Old Men" less than a decade ago, and both of those films were far more morally murky than "The Big Short," which ultimately takes a clear position against financial malfeasance, even though its characters sometimes don't.

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Photo: "The Big Short" cast. Credit: Paramount

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