The Big Short—The prestige Christmas Day releases this year have such feel-good subjects as concussions in the NFL and two women persecuted for a lesbian affair in the ‘50s. Beating these two into the multiplexes today is this jolly romp about the criminal idiocies leading up to the collapse of the housing market in 2008.
But I’m not being facetious. It really is a jolly romp. Director and co-writer Adam McKay, best known for Will Farrell flicks like Anchorman, uses his anything-goes comedy techniques to give this infuriating and depressing material a sort of Brechtian vaudeville energy, and the result is one of the most absorbing and perversely entertaining movies of the year.
Based, like 2011’s excellent Moneyball, on a nonfiction book by Michael Lewis, the film follows several traders and investors who predicted, or were made to believe, that the market, balanced on atrociously unstable subprime mortgage bonds, would collapse starting in 2007. Because of the received wisdom that the housing market was unshakable, these guys were seen as crackpots when they began to “short” (bet against) the housing market with “Credit Default Swaps” in the mid-2000s. When the market did indeed melt down in 2007-2008, they looked like geniuses. Jackals too, perhaps—and the movie doesn’t try to deny it—but genius jackals.
Said geniuses (some of them are dramatized under their own names, others under pseudonyms) include Christian Bale as a socially awkward California doctor turned hedge fund manager who horrified his own investors by pouring millions into swaps, and Finn Whitrock and John Magaro as two small-potatoes hedge fund guys who got into swaps with the help of their disillusioned mentor Brad Pitt (who also executive-produced). Steve Carrell plays an abrasive hedge fund boss, haunted by a personal tragedy, who worked under the aegis of Morgan Stanley with his small team of wound-up, bantering, obscenity-spouting traders (Jeremy Strong, Rafe Spall and Hamish Linklater).
They’re all excellent, but the liveliest of the leads is Ryan Gosling as the swaggering Deutsche Bank trader who sells Carrell on shorting the market. Gosling’s character frequently looks into the camera and addresses us—several characters do, but this guy most of all—and having the least tortured, most unapologetically mercenary of The Big Short’s players serve as its spokesman goes a long way to rescuing it from piety.
You’ll notice that in the preceding paragraphs I throw around financial terms like I remotely understand them. I assure you I probably understand them far less than you do, although after seeing this movie—assuming that it’s reasonably accurate—I now understand them far better than I did before. McKay makes the movie a remedial-level course in finance, and he uses gimmicky shtick to keep us interested—he shows us Margot Robbie luxuriating in a bubble bath with a glass of champagne while she explains subprime mortgages to us, and a couple of other celebrities pop up to give us brief tutorials.
The implication of these gags could be seen, in a sense, as an insult to the audience. But it’s an elegant and entertaining insult. And, alas, not an unfair one