There’s not one single character to root for in The Big Short. This savagely funny, scary and appropriately outraged new movie, based on Moneyball author Michael Lewis’ book The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, is about how some Wall Street sharpies made a fortune betting on the home mortgage nightmare that paved the way for the global financial collapse of 2008. In the name of staving off another Great Depression, helping regular folks and creating jobs, $700 billion in taxpayer money got pledged to the bailout. It remains one of the biggest flimflam jobs ever foisted on the American public. And only one fall guy went to jail for it.
The makers of The Big Short want to wise us up. The question, just like with The Wolf of Wall Street, is whether anyone will get the gist behind the glitz. Of course it helps that such good actors play these opportunistic lizards, the craven cheerleaders of Too Big To Fail. Christian Bale is all mannerisms and dissociation in his showstopping role as the chief of Scion Capital. He’s a maladroit loner with a glass eye and zero talent for social interaction but a nose for impending financial meltdown. Then there’s Steve Carell as an obnoxiously rude and self-loathing hedge-fund high roller who ignores his wife (Marisa Tomei) and denies the pain of the suicide of his brother. Ryan Gosling plays the film’s slick, oily Deutsche Bank man and also its unreliable narrator who frequently breaks the fourth wall to explain to the audience just how badly the US financial system crushed – and continues to crush – the 99 percent, most of whom aren’t paying the least bit of attention. And there’s Brad Pitt as an ex-trader turned off-the-grid New Age phony who can’t stop himself from helping two scheming young investors (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock, both terrific) to make a fortune off the world’s calamity and misery.
They’re all excellent. Bale and Carell come off strongest, with fantastic support from Hamish Linklater, Melissa Leo, Max Greenfield, Adepero Oduye, Billy Magnusson and Karen Gillan. Charles Randolph and Adam McKay, the latter best-known for previous directing efforts including Anchorman and Talladega Nights, scripted this thing in what feels like a state of white heat. When the dialogue about subprime mortgages and tranches goes whirling around the theater, just the way bankers bet on it doing in real life, director McKay bombards us with collages of Britney Spears, high rollers, rows of houses with “For Sale” signs and bleakly hilarious cameos of movie and pop stars who explain it all for us.
The Big Short is meant to keep us entertained, jittery, informed and outraged. It works: As the movie makes crystal clear, the world financial community has ensured that another collapse will happen. It’s only a matter of time. Where has this furious, impassioned, brilliantly skilled Adam McKay been keeping himself? Please, even if he has to make another Anchorman sequel or two, he’s too valuable to continue hiding in plain sight.