The Big Short Turns the Financial Meltdown Into a Heist Comedy

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Brad Pitt in The Big Short. Photo: Paramount Pictures

How do you make an exuberant comedy about the financial apocalypse of 2008 that also manages to elucidate — with documentary-like rigor — the labyrinthine fraud at the heart of the U.S. economy? It’s a challenge that the director Adam McKay leaps to in The Big Short (see our story here), which he adapted (with Charles Randolph) from Michael Lewis’s book on the collapse of the subprime-mortgage market. It’s a rollicking bad time!

McKay invents his own glorious goofball syntax: part business thriller, part stand-up comedy, with a liberal dash of NPR didacticism — as in the Peabody-winning “This American Life” episode “The Giant Pool of Money.” He has a master of ceremonies in Ryan Gosling’s Deutsche Bank slickster Jared Vennett (based on Lewis’s portrait of Greg Lippmann), who buttonholes the camera, explains how bankers went from “losers” to hotshots, and introduces characters like the misfit San Jose money manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale) and voluble New York hedge-fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell), both of whom bet against a booming housing market built on bad loans. Vennett stops the show for “explainer” sidebars that are the movie’s glory: celebrities who spell out what’s meant by such concepts as “mortgage-backed securities,” “collateralized-debt obligations” (CDOs), and “extrapolation bias.” It’s important to follow along: The more you can cram into your mind, the more your mind will be blown by the titanic scope of the greed and illogic.

The film’s various heroes ignore conventional wisdom and risk everything for what they believe, and we root for them: We love to identify with mavericks, even (maybe especially) if in real life we follow the herd. But in this case there’s a brilliant, nasty paradox at work. When we root for each man to be proved right and make a killing on cascading defaults, we’re actually rooting for global economic collapse and the loss of our own money. We go, Yes! They did it!!! They’re rich!!! And then: Oh. Shit. It’s both a great narrative strategy — Why would we want to identify with us, the patsies? — and a window like no other into How Things Work in the infernal machine that is 21st-­century capitalism.

To be fair, these men didn’t create said infernal machine; they only recognized and profited from it. Bale’s Burry (the only real name among the film’s protagonists) is a socially awkward (on the Asperg­ian end of the spectrum) ex-neurologist who bops around his office-playroom waving a pair of drumsticks. He’s the one who gets it first, who flies to New York to buy “shorts” from bankers who shoot stunned glances at one another while thinking, Sure, we’ll take your hundred million, heh-heh. Easy money! Bale plays him sweet and earnest, in his own world of impersonal projections, incapable of lying but seemingly untroubled by the morality of his investment: He’s only fazed when the market doesn’t collapse at the precise instant he knows it should, when it continues to be propped up by delusional thinking and he has to hold out against bosses who think he’s destroying their firm. Will things go to hell in time to save his investment? Fingers crossed!

It’s Carell’s Baum (based on Steve Eisman) who’s divided against himself, in it to win it but aghast at the chicanery and shortsightedness and the prospect of economic Armageddon. He still — as Vennett notes, with sadness and derision — has faith in the system. Baum’s brother (also in finance) jumped off a skyscraper, and he can’t shrug off the real-world consequences of what he does. Before making a deal with Vennett, Baum leads his team to Florida, where for sale signs and idle bulldozers dot suburban neighborhoods with their empty McMansions. What shocks him even more is the joshing, nihilistic materialism of the young men who collect fat commissions on loans that they know will never be paid back. “They’re not confessing,” says one of Baum’s assistants. “They’re bragging.” Even more appalling is the sequence in which Baum and Vennett travel to Vegas to get a close-up look at the industry packaging the loans. A scene in which Baum quizzes a smug CDO manager (clearly based on Wing Chau, whose libel suit against Lewis was dismissed) ends with one of the few applause lines. Baum hisses: “Short everything this guy has touched!”

Carell’s Baum is capable of sitting still and focusing for short amounts of time but not of keeping his thoughts to himself. He always looks as if he is itchy in his skin and smelling bad things. It’s a wonderful performance—peerlessly antsy. But the whole cast is terrific. Gosling sends up his own ingenuous good looks, and he has a funny, mocking rapport with Jeremy Strong, who radiates hostility as one of Baum’s partners. Finn Wittrock and John Magaro are the film’s other protagonists, a pair of fledgling Colorado investors who get wind of the potential windfall and turn for advice to their old mentor, Ben Rickert — Brad Pitt with a beard in his intellectual, Robert Redford–esque persona. Pitt (who also brought Lewis’s Moneyball to the screen) co-produced The Big Short with Dede Gardner, and, as in 12 Years a Slave, he gets to be the voice of decency, reminding his protégés that their fortunes will be made from the loss of investments, pensions, and houses. He scolds them for dancing.

Although McKay is best known for the slapstick Will Ferrell comedies Anchorman and Stepbrothers, he has also shown a fair amount of political sass. He directed Ferrell in the barbed Broadway hit You’re Welcome, America: A Final Night With George W. Bush, and he closed the 2010 Ferrell–Mark Wahlberg buddy-cop comedy The Other Guys with a chart of bonuses paid to executives at financial companies taking government bailouts. Reviewing that film, I wrote, “Maybe instead of another buddy-cop movie they ought to have made a comedy about an SEC dummy.” This is close! Dr. Who vet Karen Gillan flexes her mile-long gams as the blithely unconscientious Securities and Exchange Commission agent with a yen for finance types — not a subtle character. More fascinatingly weird is Melissa Leo as the blinkered little Standard & Poor’s analyst who’s taken aback when Baum calls her out for giving triple-A ratings to triple-Z loans. “If we don’t give [the banks] what they want,” she explains, “they will go to Moody’s.”

The Big Short ends with some pointed editorializing about the lack of consequences for the fraudsters who cost the country trillions, and I was going to complain about the movie turning preachy … until I remembered having dinner in 2009 or thereabouts with some far-right-wing friends of my parents. The problem, they explained, was that the government had forced banks to give loans to minorities and immigrants. The problem was too much regulation. These are not the sort of people who’d see the director Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job or any pinko documentary. But maybe they’ll see this nutty, whooshy comedy (the best film of the year? Possibly …) and choke on their popcorn. McKay’s way of spinning this story gets us where we live.      

*This article appears in the November 30, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.