It sounds like a horror show: a doomsday epic about the 2008 financial crisis and the Wall Street wolves who got rich off it. Gone were the homes, jobs and savings of average Joes. But wait. As directed and written by Adam McKay – the dude behind Anchorman and other giddy hits with Will Ferrell, his partner on the website Funny or Die – The Big Short is hunting bigger game. I’d call it a Restoration comedy for right the fuck now, a farce fueled by rage against the machine that relentlessly kills ethics, and a hell of a hilarious time at the movies if you’re up for laughs that stick in your throat.
Based on the nonfiction bestseller by Michael Lewis, The Big Short is brilliantly constructed by McKay to hit where it hurts. A terrific Christian Bale pulls you right in as Michael Burry, an eccentric neurologist-turned-money-manager who pads around barefoot in his San Jose office, fiddling with his glass eye and banging drums. It’s Burry who figures out that those subprime home loans the banks hand out to bad credit risks are a disaster in the making.
Wall Street fat cats dismiss Burry as a crank. But not Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), a Deutsche Bank dealmaker who relishes Burry’s idea to bet against the banks by shorting home loans that are bound to default. Gosling, a virtuoso of verbal sleaze, talks directly to the camera, and he’s volcanically fierce and funny. It’s Vennett who intensifies the big short by partnering with Mark Baum (Steve Carell), a hedge-fund manager who runs FrontPoint, a subsidiary of Morgan Stanley. Baum is a hardass. But he knows a good deal when it gets a thumbs-up from his trio of number crunchers (Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater and Jeremy Strong). Baum is also the only character in the film with a working conscience. Carell is just tremendous, following his Oscar-nominated turn in Foxcatcher with a performance of comic cunning and shocking gravity. Likewise, Brad Pitt finds the disgust in Ben Rickert, a banker who’s paying for his sins by helping the environment – that is, until he uses two young money managers (Finn Wittrock and John Magaro) to bite the hand that fed him.
Camera maestro Barry Ackroyd helps McKay keep the plot in a perpetual spin. When it sails over your head – and it will – McKay drops in celeb explainers, including Selena Gomez, Anthony Bourdain and Margot Robbie. Are you more likely to understand CDOs if a naked Robbie explains them in a bubble bath? Probably not. But who’s complaining? McKay dares greatly by couching his anger in a slapstick tragedy that makes us wish we could see every character in it behind bars. Does the risk pay off? Bet on it.