I’ve seen The Big Short twice now, and I still have no idea if it’s as good as it is in spite of all those puerile, self-indulgent Will Ferrell movies that director/co-writer Adam McKay made or because of them. Much as I don’t like those movies — and much as I do like this one — I’m inclined to believe it’s because of them, if only in the way they inform The Big Short‘s deliberate artifice and seemingly anarchic structure. Regardless, McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph have taken Michael Lewis’ book about the 2008 housing collapse and turned it into the bleakest, angriest, absurdest comedy imaginable, a film that is at once bitterly funny and maddening. It’s a kind of epic tragedy bathed in cynicism where the heroes are … well, not heroes. It’s a story where only the film’s playful attitude — and that fact that it lets us in on its black joke — keeps it palatable. And only just. Then you reflect that all this is (give or take) true, and the joke is less funny.
The basic premise is that, long before the housing bubble burst, its demise was spotted by a few outsider oddballs who realized that it would be possible to make money — and lots of it — by betting the big banking and stock brokerages that the housing market would indeed collapse. These consist of Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a one-eyed social disaster with a penchant for drumming to heavy metal records and a knack for spotting things others miss — not to mention the obsessiveness necessary to read through thousands of pages of loans. Then there’s Mark Baum (Steve Carell), a stock trader with anger issues (among other issues). He is tipped off to the idea by banker (and the film’s narrator) Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who, having heard of Burry’s plan, sees this as revenge on his bosses. Baum wants to believe this because it fits his image of banks as the source of all evil.
Finally, there are a pair of greenhorn entrepreneurs — Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley — who literally stumble across the information in the form of Vennett’s failed pitch lying on a table in the lobby of Morgan Chase just as they’re being cordially thrown out of the building. Being neither savvy nor moneyed enough to take advantage of the idea, they turn to an old acquaintance, Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), a retired banker-turned-neo-hippie-health-food-nut. He sees the chance immediately, wants no part of this world, but relents in order to help these would-be big shots.
All of that is set-up. The film itself is concerned with wittily — and wickedly — explaining just what all this means and how it works. McKay offers us a look into a world of finance that’s grounded in fraud, deceit and arrogance. It’s a world kept going by sleight of hand and the well-founded belief that the general public doesn’t understand any of this — and really doesn’t want to. Occasionally bringing in personalities (like Margot Robbie “in a bathful of bubbles”) to break it down for the viewer helps some — and the cleverness of it certainly helps keep it “fun” — but the truth is that all this can be hard to process. (A second viewing helps.) What is finally not hard to understand is the enormity of the absurd spectacle of avarice, stupidity and willful blindness on display. Sure, we like the fact that McKay and company take us into their confidence, so we feel more like we’re in on the grotesque joke. But it’s not comforting, nor is it meant to be. However, it’s essential. Rated R for pervasive language and some sexuality/nudity.