Bubble Boys

The antic Big Short plays the collapse of 2008 for laughs—but it’s still a tragedy.

Christian Bale as Michael Burry in The Big Short.

Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures

“Explain it to me like I’m a golden retriever,” asked the investment banker played by Jeremy Irons in Margin Call, as he faced the imminent collapse of his firm in the 2008 financial crisis. Those of us with a golden retriever’s comprehension of the financial markets laughed appreciatively, but in The Big Short, writer-director Adam McKay finds a more human way into the crisis. The Big Short, more comedic than Margin Call but, by the end, no less tragic, explains it to us—“it” being the murky process by which a housing-market bubble somehow turned into a global financial catastrophe—not as if we’re friendly floppy eared pets, but as if we’re intelligent human beings.

One of the most appealing things about this very appealing movie—a stylistic Chex Mix of storytelling, satire, advocacy, and clip art—is its high regard for the intellect of the viewer, who is at times addressed directly by the film’s characters or by celebrities playing themselves in pop-up cameos. The Big Short, adapted from Michael Lewis’ 2010 nonfiction book, proceeds on the assumption that not only are Americans capable of understanding exactly what happened to our money in the wake of the events of 2008, but we deserve to understand it—indeed, that it’s our moral duty to do so.

Moral duty and comedy aren’t usually the comfiest of bedfellows, but McKay—best known for his dumb-and-proud comic collaborations with Will Ferrell, including Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, and the Anchorman movies—mingles righteous outrage with intermittent fits of giggling. You haven’t seen credit default swaps explained until you’ve seen Ryan Gosling, in a hideous curly wig, stacking Jenga blocks to illustrate the concept for a group of skeptical investors. As they begin to catch on the concept, so do we, which only increases our outrage. (Boiled down to a point that even an overbred poodle like me can understand it: A lot of bad mortgages are bundled together, rubber-stamped with an AA rating, and then sold off as good investment products to unsuspecting buyers. The “big short” of the title is the bet the few analysts who’ve uncovered the scam make on the likelihood those investments will fail.)

Gosling plays Deutsche Bank doutsche bag Jared Vennett, who narrates the film’s opening segment, introducing us to many principal characters. As Jared warns, he’s hardly the movie’s hero—only a cynical playboy who’s sharp enough to take advantage of the opportunity few investors have the foresight to see coming. One who does is Michael Burry, (Christian Bale), a San José–based doctor turned private money manager whose difficulty in relating to the social world may have something to do with his uncanny skill at number-crunching. (Though the film’s primary characters are versions of real-life figures in Lewis’ book, Burry is the only one to appear under his own name.) While obsessively going over some mortgage bond assets one day, the beyond-eccentric Burry—who likes to work barefoot in shorts while blasting heavy metal—notices how many of the home loans bundled into the bonds are headed for default. When Burry goes around asking investment banks for opportunities to bet against the housing market, he’s literally laughed out of the room (though, in between guffaws, the banks take his money). Soon a few younger Wall Street investors, including Vennett and a pair of fumbling startup entrepreneurs played by Finn Wittrock and John Magaro, catch wind of Burry’s default-swap idea and begin pitching it to financiers—including former banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), now a reclusive health-food zealot who’s reluctant to be associated with the whole dirty game.

If there’s anything remotely approaching a hero in this roiling carnival of opportunism and greed, it’s the temperamental hedge-fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell), based on the real-life Big Shorter Steve Eisman. Mark has buried his grief over a recent family tragedy in stress and overwork. When his wife (Marisa Tomei) begs him to slow down and get help, he barks, “I love my job. I love my job. I LOVE MY JOB!” in a voice about as loving as a jackhammer.

Mark at first distrusts the new investment tools being touted by the unctuous Vennett. But when he and his team (a wiseass trio played by Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater and Jeremy Strong) travel to Miami to investigate the state of the supposedly booming housing market, a depressing encounter with two ethics-free mortgage brokers—along with the gator in an abandoned home’s swimming pool—convinces them that the bubble is indeed about to burst. As one of the first investors to realize what that will mean not only for his own firm’s success but for the nation’s economic future, Mark’s character takes on a tragic dimension in the movie’s last third.

In the end, The Big Short becomes the dramatic showcase Carell thought he had in Foxcatcher. Mark Baum has the moral complexity (and complex character arc) that movie’s cold-fish billionaire lacked. Carell keenly conveys this miserable man’s conflicted relationship to his own success: He’s about to be proven right, make a killing in the market, and get filthy rich—while untold numbers of his fellow citizens lose their jobs, homes, and savings because of the same chicanery that made his score possible.

The screenplay, co-written by McKay and Charles Randolph, dismantles prettified clichés about “moral hazard” and “complex financial instruments” to reveal the simpler, uglier words bundled into them like so many bad mortgages: Fraud. Theft. Lies. These plain-spoken deconstructions of financial jargon are delivered direct to camera as tongue-in-cheek PSAs—most memorably by the dazzling Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street), who sips champagne in a bathtub while sensually breaking down abstruse financial concepts. Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain likens the housing scam to restaurants that hide three-day-old fish in overpriced seafood stew. A distinguished behavioral economist shows up to play a hand of blackjack with Selena Gomez, by way of explaining the “hot hand fallacy” that tricks both gamblers and investors into believing they can’t lose. Because these incursions are fast-moving, funny, and short, they don’t slow down the film’s pace; if anything, The Big Short’s 130-minute running time careens by, eased along by bouncy pop-cultural montages that trace the nation’s trajectory from the Reagan years to 2008—from Thatcher to Greenspan to Bernanke, yes, but also from Cyndi Lauper to Cartman to Ali G.

The cronyism, deception and systemic malfeasance that led up to the crisis of 2008 have been seen on screen in recent years, in the form of tense workplace dramas (Margin Call, 99 Homes), grim documentaries (Inside Job), and old-fashioned gangster pictures set in the world of high finance (The Wolf of Wall Street). But McKay’s saucy, innovative comedy accomplishes something no other movie about that time has yet tried. It plays the whole absurd shell game for laughs, even as it acknowledges that the last and bitterest laugh is on the rest of us.