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Wolves of Wall Street: ‘Billions,’ ‘The Big Short,’ and the New Gilded Age

Wolves of Wall Street: 'Billions,' 'The Big Short,' and the New Gilded Age

In the fourth episode of Showtime’s new series,
Billions,” hedge fund manager Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damian
Lewis) is compared to kings, nation-states, and God Himself, but none strikes
so disheartening a note as the one to Charles Foster Kane.

Orson Welles’ tragic hero, first introduced to Axelrod by a
flirtatious songstress in Québec City, of all places, soon becomes
something of an abortive obsession for the darkly charismatic capitalist.
Though he arranges for a 35mm print to be projected in his private screening
room, “Rosebud” remains out of reach, the film subject to constant
intrusions by the Wall Street squawk box of shorts, squeezes, and the SEC.
Axelrod is, in this sense, not unlike “Billions” itself: drawn to the
symbols of the denatured American Dream—as potent today as they were upon the
release of “Citizen Kane” in 1941—but unwilling, or unable, to see
the attraction through.

Though Andrew Sarris filed a ferocious retort to Pauline
Kael’s magnum opus, “Raising Kane,” after it was published in the New
Yorker in 1971, both recognized, in their distinctive ways, what Sarris called
“the transparent movieness of ‘Kane.'” Whether by reference to
“King Kong” or “The Front Page,” the film forms its
understanding of power, writ large, from the power of the image, in particular
the soundless depths of Gregg Toland’s cinematography. “Billions,” by
contrast, is opaque and shallow, an allusion to Xanadu—one Axe’s heavy, Mike
“Wags” Wagner (David Costabile, mustache upturned like a cartoon
villain), makes explicit—rather than an imposing structure in its own right.
The series isn’t even the “Citizen Kane” of bland workplace dramas, and
lest you consider it unfair to mention it in the same breath as one of the
Greatest Films of All Time,” remember this: they brought it up.

Rather, “Billions,” created by “Ocean’s
Thirteen” and “The Girlfriend Experience” screenwriters Brian
Koppelman and David Levien, along with New York Times columnist and CNBC anchor
Andrew Ross Sorkin, registers as a test case—the control against which we might
measure the three films of note to come out of the Great Recession:
Margin Call” (J.C. Chandor, 2011), “The Wolf of Wall
Street” (Martin Scorsese, 2013), and now “The Big Short” (Adam

In “The Big Short,” which received five Oscar
Thursday morning, McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph remain true
to author Michael Lewis’ nonfiction account of the ne’er-do-wells who
discovered the glaring flaw in the 21st century financial system before anyone else. (Imagine
the best Vox “explainer” you’ve ever read, edited by a stand-up
comedian, and narrated by Ryan Gosling.) It’s shaggy, almost shopworn,
illustrating an epididymis and playing Jenga, explaining tranches,
collateralized debt obligations, and credit default swaps with puckish humor—in
other words, it’s everything the Showtime series is not, embracing its eccentricities
at the risk of appearing unfashionable.

With a series of asides and soliloquies that break the
fourth wall, not to mention its repurposed vérité aesthetic—shaky camerawork,
muddy colors, the occasional vertiginous zoom—”The Big Short”
recounts the mortgage meltdown by mussing up the financial sector’s high-gloss
Whatever its shortcomings, including a raft of pro forma roles for such
talented actresses as Marisa Tomei and Melissa Leo, the film roughhouses with a
subject largely hidden beneath layers of abstraction and obfuscation, and in
the process emerges as a pointed critique of free-market ideology run amok. The
premise of “The Big Short” is not that capitalism, which is amoral,
be dismantled, but that capitalism, because
it’s amoral, requires regulation—and McKay uses the film’s stylistic excesses
to craft this argument with aplomb.

There is, of course, no “correct” approach to
portraying traders, brokers, bankers, and loan officers, only the danger of
slipping into the wan vernacular by which, as “The Big Short”
elucidates, financiers lull us into ignoring, even accepting, the booms and
busts by which they earn their keep. “The Big Short” is a screwball
comedy about the destruction of the world economy; “Margin Call” is
an icily effective portrait of the cravenness at the heart of the system,
painted in the colors of a bruise; “The Wolf of Wall Street” pummels the viewer with Jordan Belfort’s debauched existence for three full hours,
force-feeding us the candied delights of the global elite until we want to
puke. What links these films is their commitment to the notion, as Joan Didion
once wrote, that “style is character”: their deliberate aesthetic
choices are what allow us to peer into a rarefied world that seems far beyond
our reach.

Pitting Axelrod, the wealthy, unscrupulous Robin Hood who
came from nothing, against U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), the
ambitious crusader born with a silver spoon in his mouth, “Billions”
prefers the clean lines of archetype. It is, as an informant with knowledge of
Axe’s daily routine relates, “a zero-sum game. Kill and eat, or be
eaten.” That this dull idea fails to find much traction amid the
series’ open-plan offices, spotless white kitchens, and gleaming
Bloomberg terminals is hardly surprising. With no visual cracks or crevices in
which to gain a foothold, the series slips into a “Stock Trade of the
Week” rhythm, the rat-tat-tat of clichés and curses unable to hide the
fact that neither player in its clash of Titans possesses much in the way of
human texture. Axe and Rhoades are competition personified, as amoral as
the market itself. 

This is unfortunate, for in the end the most memorable
aspect of “Kane”—and, to a lesser extent, “Margin Call,”
“The Wolf of Wall Street,” and “The Big Short”—is the sense
of moral, political, and personal complication that emerges from its meeting of
form and function, multiplying rather than dividing the number of possible
readings that may be applied to it. If we are to see with clear eyes the glitch
in the matrix that made this new Gilded Age, and by extension to dramatize it, it
won’t be by way of screeds and sermons, but neither will it be by smoothing out
the sharp edges of the system as if its gains and losses were theoretical.
“Xanadu” has since come, by endless allusion, to suggest fantasies of
splendor, but in “Kane” its emptiness is real.

Perhaps tellingly, then, the bright spot in “Billions” is Maggie
Siff (“Mad Men”), as Rhoades’ wife—and Axelrod’s in-house
psychoanalyst—Wendy. Slyly manipulative, rarely shattering her impassive
expression, she’s tasked with refereeing what amounts to a prolonged
dick-measuring contest, and yet Siff seems to recognize, and revel in, the
impossibility of remaining perfectly objective, amoral, above the fray. With a
certain profound fatigue, as if she’s been managing men’s fragile egos all her
life, Wendy suggests what “Billions” might be were it willing scuff
up its shiny complexion, to throw a hitch or two into its swagger.

Instead, the series recycles a threadbare phrase that was
also used in Crackle’s gormless “The Art of More”: “What’s the
point of having ‘Fuck you’ money if you never say ‘Fuck you’?” Axe asks
Rhoades at one point, but as it happens, “Billions” can’t muster the
gumption to say “Fuck you” to anyone in particular. In fact, it’s so
studiously neutral in both narrative structure and visual design I began to
wonder if it was saying anything at all.

“Billions” premieres Sunday, January 17
at 10pm on Showtime. “The Big Short” is currently playing in theaters

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