The great American tradition of filling one’s pockets with other people’s money has inspired milestones from “Glengarry Glen Ross” to “Ocean’s Eleven,” “Wall Street” to “The Wolf of Wall Street.” The dizzying comic thriller “The Big Short” joins that class of “follow the money” classics. It’s a dazzling, muckraking story about financially corrupt banksters committing the biggest fraud in U.S. history.
The film is adapted from author Michael Lewis’ “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine.” That nonfiction account followed the massive 2008 mortgage bubble as it triggered financial collapse, blowing the nation’s economy to smithereens. If you don’t clearly remember that Armageddon, take a minute to look at your retirement plan. I will wait until you stop crying.
This seems like an incongruous topic for director Adam McKay, a past master of goofball gems like “Anchorman” and “Step Brothers.” Yet he proves himself a gifted, versatile filmmaker who understands how to entertain without obscuring a message. McKay makes a smart, snarky crisis tragicomedy from the real estate boom and bust. His film balances sardonic character sketches with sober mockery of a culture gone mad with market mania.
The heroes of the tale – sort of – are Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt, all bright and interesting actors doing standout work. They play a diverse group of renegade investment specialists – Gosling’s narration calls them “a few weirdos and outsiders” – suspicious that America is about to jump off a cliff of toxic assets. These smart men are admirable in the ways they fathom the imminent unholy mess. They observed that the real estate boom, driven in part by risky mortgages for bottom-rung buyers (no-income, no-job “ninjas”), was circling the toilet bowl. Those iffy loans, packaged into overrated bonds, would collapse. But the downfall could make immense fortunes for traders betting against the market (and the economy) in the form of credit-default swaps.
The central focus is a labyrinthine situation involving Wall Street jargon about pooled loans and liability structure tranches. This is the sort of thing that stretches creative ingenuity to the breaking point, but McKay explains it in plain English, through the most unlikely interpreters. Breaking the fourth wall, he enlists actress Margot Robbie – the blond bombshell from “The Wolf of Wall Street” – for a bubble bath soliloquy directly addressing viewers to define mortgage bonds. Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain cooks us a stew of leftover fish to explain collateralized debt obligations.
The film bustles with flashbacks and inspired, subtle effects, like the hushed buzzing of flies when a pair of market researchers visit a Florida housing development that’s all but abandoned. Moments like these make the frequently surreal film oddly realistic and grounded. What better way to represent the coming downfall of the market than by pushing over a tower of Jenga blocks?
McKay keeps the story human by giving his money men a taste for childish insult humor and some excruciating personal issues. There are no outright heroes or villains in “The Big Short.” The central characters aren’t thieves; Carell’s brokerage trader believes the banking system is corrupt. He’s an annoying but decent man, haunted by the feeling that he should have offered his late brother attention that could have saved his life. But what does that guilt mean in the next moral dilemma he has to face? Bale’s hedge fund manager is a hyper-energetic genius who is painfully awkward socially.
Yet as the bubble approaches, everyone’s actions are geared to do what is advantageous to them. They focus on betting against the economic system to make a bundle, not do what would prevent or smooth the bubble. Sharks are sharks. They attack food, not ethical dilemmas.
One senses that McKay created “The Big Short” from passion, deftly inking his characters’ public follies to private frailties. Watching this polished, effective film is like listening to an album where practically every song is a potential hit single.
The Big Short
Cast: Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie
Director: Adam McKay
Rated R (pervasive language and some sexuality/nudity)