The Big Short

Adam McKay's The Other Guys is largely a goofy, hyperactive parody of buddy cop movies... but at the end, something surprising happens. Rather than using the end credits for the usual series of bloopers and outtakes, McKay dives into a politically-charged PowerPoint presentation, naming and shaming individuals and corporations who played a key role in the 2007/2008 financial crisis. It's an odd, out-of-left-field gesture that doesn't quite work – an awkward attempt to force the audience to eat a bite of broccoli after treating them to a delicious ice cream sundae. However, the subject matter clearly hasn't left McKay's mind, and The Big Short is his attempt to tackle it at length. This time, he sticks the landing.

I suppose you could say that The Big Short is McKay's first “drama,” except for the parts where it isn't. Honestly, The Big Short really doesn't fit comfortably into any particular genre, and it doesn't really feel like anything else I've seen this year. It's a drama, it's a comedy, it's a heist movie, it's a strident political screed, it's a deft political satire, it's the fourth wall-breaking giddiness of The Wolf of Wall Street fused with the wonkish glumness of Too Big to Fail... and yes, every now and then it's a PowerPoint presentation. It's messy in terms of tone and structure, but breathtakingly precise when it comes to detailing the specifics of what went wrong, how it went wrong, who knew about it and who is responsible. Plus, it's ridiculously fun. Is it a good movie? I don't know, but it's a sensational piece of edutainment.

The film jumps back and forth between three different storylines, all of which begin in 2005 and center around people who begin to suspect that a housing crisis is on the horizon. The first person to make this discovery is Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale, The Dark Knight), an eccentric hedge fund manager who is skeptical of the rising popularity of Collateralized Debt Obligations (or CDOs) and decides to do an in-depth investigation of the assets that comprise some of those CDOs. Eventually, he realizes that many of these assets are subprime mortgages that are in imminent danger of falling apart. According to his calculations, the mortgages will collapse, which will cause the CDOs to collapse, which will cause the banks to collapse, which will cause the American housing market to collapse. Burry sees a financial opportunity: he takes $100 million and invests it in credit default swaps. In simpler terms: he's betting against the American economy, so if things do go belly up, Burry and his investors have a huge payday waiting for them. The only problem is that nobody on Wall Street shares Burry's beliefs, so the investors start getting nervous.

Elsewhere, we meet up with hotshot banker Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling, Drive), who gets wind of Burry's unusual investment decisions and decides to invest in some credit default swaps himself. This accidentally attracts the attention of Mark Baum (Steve Carell, The Office), another hedge fund manager with a cynical view of Wall Street and an incredibly short temper. Eventually, Vennett persuades the well-funded Baum to get in on the investment, though Baum insists on continuing to investigate the details of this new endeavor for himself.

Finally, we're introduced to Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock, Noah) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro, Carol), a pair of scrappy up-and-coming investors who hear rumors of Vennett's credit default swap investments. They turn to a retired number-cruncher named Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt, By the Sea), who takes a look at the numbers and determines... yep, a crash is on the horizon. Jamie and Charlie are eager to invest in credit default swaps, too, but to do so they're going to need a hard-to-obtain license that gets them a, “seat at the grown-ups' table.” Fortunately, Ben may be able to help with this.

Most of these characters are likable and principled in contrast to the usual Wall Street vultures, and we like them so much that it occasionally becomes easy to forget that rooting for them essentially means rooting for the economy to collapse. It'll obviously happen, but will it happen quickly enough for these risky credit default swaps to pay off? The characters themselves feel more than a little conflicted about this, particularly once they begin to recognize precisely what the fallout of all this is going to be... and when they're reminded that there are human lives attached to all of these numbers they're throwing around.

The world of hedge funds, mortgages and investing isn't exactly the most exciting subject matter in the world, and McKay knows it. To compensate for this, he does anything and everything within his power to keep our attention, tossing in amusing celebrity cameos, ridiculous montages of the era's pop culture trends, colorful metaphors and a narrator (Gosling's character) who occasionally stops the film dead in its tracks when he feels the need to explain something. “Does this stuff make you feel bored, or stupid?” he asks. “Well, it's supposed to.” McKay knows that most people don't really have a clear idea of exactly how the financial crisis happened, and he's willing to risk being a little patronizing (and believe me, some of the early passages of the film can feel pretty smug) to ensure that everybody gets it. Most Americans know that they got screwed by the big banks, but how many of us can offer a clear explanation of how the banks did it? The Big Short wants to give its viewers – many of whom would probably never consider reading something like the well-regarded nonfiction book the film is based on – a strong foundation of understanding. These things are important to know, because precious little has changed in the banking industry in the years since the government bailout. Our house of cards fell to the ground, and despite the promises that things are getting better, we seem to be using the same building materials.

The cast isn't particularly diverse (The Big Short might have been called White Dudes in Suits and Bad Wigs: The Movie), but the performances certainly are. Bale's performance initially seems like a bundle of tics (Burry has Asperger's syndrome, doesn't wear shoes to work, has a glass eye and constantly blasts heavy metal music in his office), but the actor quickly locates the character's soulful intelligence and turns in something really compelling. Gosling is playing the alpha male douchebag; the sort of character who almost certainly has an Entourage poster hanging up somewhere in his house. His cocksure posturing is responsible for a lot of the film's most entertaining moments, and Gosling seems to be having a grand time playing him. Pitt – bearded and bespectacled – is in “quiet decency” mode, playing the closest thing the film has to a moral compass. How cynical is he about the American economy's chances? He advises everyone he knows to buy a lot of seeds and start planting gardens.

The film's best performance comes from Carell, who simultaneously plays the film's most cartoonish and most affectingly human character. With his perpetually messy mop-top and red face, Mark Baum occasionally looks like the human incarnation of some sort of root vegetable, and he enters a room with such sour energy that it's often hard for anyone else to get a word in edgewise. Baum is loud and cranky, but part of this seems to be his way of coping with the recent death of his brother (another Wall Street guy who threw himself off the roof of a building). As long as he keeps fuming about whatever is pissing him off at the moment, he doesn't run the risk of getting distracted by his more complicated feelings. It's a perfect part for Carell, whose tense energy, knack for physical comedy and gift for capturing all forms of social awkwardness are put to good use.

The Big Short is certainly the least silly movie McKay has made, but this isn't like when Jay Roach decided to stop making Austin Powers movies and devote himself to serious-minded political dramas. This is very much an Adam McKay film, containing a lot of big laughs and a loopy unpredictability that echoes Anchorman more often than you'd think. Mark Baum seems to embody the film as a whole: funny, angry, belligerent, smart, self-righteous and ultimately good-hearted. McKay's intermittent bursts of preachiness undercut the movie's slicker bits of satire, but they also feel compellingly sincere. The film's potency and its messiness are inextricable.

The Big Short

Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 130 minutes
Release Year: 2015