For a film on a subject already covered from every conceivable angle, The Big Short is impressively full of surprises. The first is that somebody came up with a new angle on the financial collapse of 2008. The second is that the "somebody" was writer-director Adam McKay. The universe of this movie feels light-years from McKay's collaborations with Will Ferrell, such as Anchorman — yet, improbably, the filmmaker proves himself master of it. This is a picture unlike any you've seen.
It's not, for example, like the 2010 documentary Inside Job. Or like the 2011 drama Margin Call. And, while it deals with the unchecked recklessness of the financial sector, it's not like 2013's The Wolf of Wall Street. Barring the fact that McKay's film, too, features actress Margot Robbie in a bubble bath.
Based on Michael Lewis' bestseller, The Big Short recounts one of American history's most heinous crimes and miraculously turns it into comedy. Dark comedy, to be sure, with "heroes" we root for even though they made fortunes off the misery of millions.
Christian Bale plays the guy who figured out the sky was about to fall — Dr. Michael Burry, a fund manager with Asperger's and a fondness for death metal. He does what no one else has — puts an AAA-rated mortgage-backed security under a microscope — and discovers that the country's economy is based on a bit of banking sleight of hand that bundles bonds with thousands of risky subprime mortgages.
Since income levels are flat, Burry realizes, it's only a matter of time before balloon payments make defaults skyrocket, bringing the system down like a foreclosed house of cards. Burry convinces banks to let him bet against them, and they're happy to take his money. Lots of it.
Word gets around, and a handful of investors come to the same conclusion and place bets of their own. Steve Carell plays Mark Baum, a fellow with personal reasons for wanting to stick it to Wall Street. He insists he's only happy when he's unhappy, and he's not kidding. He looks borderline suicidal when he cashes out with $2 billion.
Others have less complex motives. Neophytes Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro) simply want to get rich. They get an assist from Brad Pitt as hedge fund guru-turned-Colorado hippie Ben Rickert. And a reality check. When, at a pivotal point, the two literally dance for joy, Rickert reminds his protégés that their windfall results from the loss of people's pensions, investments, homes and jobs.
Ryan Gosling plays Jared Vennett, a smug moneyman whom McKay makes ringmaster. Besides providing narration, he periodically addresses the camera and informs the viewer whether an event just depicted actually happened. The picture's most effective running joke, though, is his introduction of celebrities who proceed to explain complex banking instruments. Anthony Bourdain compares collateralized debt obligations to stew made from day-old fish. Robbie, covered in bubbles, sips Champagne while enlightening us on ... uh, I forget. But it was complicated.
The picture's primary point is that stupidity played as significant a role in the crisis as greed. Nobody on Wall Street understood the system that made them fortunes, then bankrupted millions. Neither did anyone in the government.
Not every filmmaker has what it takes to shape material this bleak into a blackly comic blast, but McKay and his AAA-rated cast are on the money throughout. The payoff is laughter mixed with the lingering sense that there's not a whole lot of reason to think it won't happen again.