The subprime mortgage crisis of 2008 is enthusiastically reexamined from the perspective of the money men who predicted it in “The Big Short,” a comedic drama starring Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt.
Based on the bestselling book by Michael Lewis (“Moneyball”), this massively entertaining and furiously paced finance pic marks a successful first foray into dramatic territory for writer-director Adam McKay (“Anchorman,” “Step Brothers”). Using a healthy dose of absurdism to capture the farcical finance setting and the eccentric characters that populate it, McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph (“The Interpreter”) weave a seriously satisfying story that lucidly explains its complex subject. Although the vast array of characters limits the opportunities for much acting depth, the top-notch cast still leaves a lasting impression, particularly Christian Bale and Steve Carell, and should help Paramount score a healthy return at the box office.
“The Big Short” begins in 2005, when Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a neurotic, Metallica-loving Silicon Valley money-manager discovers that the housing market is set to implode. A result of the industry’s questionable practice of camouflaging sketchy individual loans by bundling them into supposedly highly rated mortgage bonds, Burry sets out to capitalize on his discovery by “shorting” the housing market through a mechanism he creates called the credit default swap.
After securing financing at several banks, word of Burry’s scheme soon spreads to Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), a Wall Street banker who also serves as the audience’s guide through this intricate world of money mavens. Piggybacking on Burry’s idea, Vennett approaches several potential investors, all of whom laugh him out of the room, with the exception of Mark Baum (Steve Carell), a cynical hedge-fund manager with deep pockets.
As Baum and his team of exuberantly vulgar analysts (Jeremy Strong, Hammish Linklater and Rafe Spall) research Florida’s housing bubble, two young money managers (Finn Wittrock and John Magaro) happen upon Vennett’s business plan at a very opportune moment in their budding careers. Wanting to get in on the action but unable to secure a spot at the “big boy’s table,” the ambitious duo reach out to Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), a quirky environmentalist and retired banker with Wall Street connections.
As each player comes to terms with – and capitalizes on – this far-reaching scandal, the audience is offered a comprehensive inside look at the housing bubble and the unprecedented greed that precipitated it.
One of the many ingenious ways that McKay and Randolph’s screenplay cuts through the dense subject matter is by staging hilarious celebrity tutorials that break down the elaborate financial jargon in layman’s terms to the audience directly. Which is not to say that McKay underestimates his audience’s intelligence. Told with a kind of manic intensity that mirrors the fast-moving financial world, it’s a complicated story that demands full attention; but thanks to Hank Corwin’s indispensable editing and Ryan Gosling’s humorously helpful narration, the audience is never left in the dark.
For the most part, McKay and Randolph’s script uses gallows humor to great effect, finding the right tone to properly channel the anger and disbelief at the story’s center. But as a result of this largely playful take on American excess, a few strictly dramatic moments, such as Steve Carell recalling a painful memory from his past, or the eviction of a Floridian tenant, fall by the wayside. Still, McKay manages to hit enough poignant notes along the way to qualify this as a successful step outside of his comedy wheelhouse, and there’s an irresistible charm to the gleeful way the meltdown is recounted.
As the resourceful number cruncher who discovers the looming disaster, Christian Bale transcends the trappings of his quirky character, crafting a lived-in portrayal in relatively little screen time. Playing the smooth-talking Wall Street banker who swoops in on Burry’s plan to short the housing market, Ryan Gosling is at his sleaziest, and clearly revels in his character’s corruption. Serving as the film’s moral foundation, Steve Carell is superb as the squeaky-voiced hedge-fund manager overwhelmed by the scale of the calamity at hand. Finally, as the environmental wackjob who comes out of banking retirement to help his neighbors navigate Wall Street, Brad Pitt elevates his minor role and drops a few zingers along the way.
Standouts in the supporting cast include Tracy Letts (“Homeland”) as Burry’s uptight hedge fund owner who doesn’t take kindly to his risky gamble; John Magaro (“Not Fade Away”) as a high-strung money manager hoping to strike it big; and Max Greenfield (“New Girl”) as a predatory mortgage broker.
The Subprime Mortgage Crisis is certainly a stain on our nation’s past, but it proves to be heady material for the big screen in the capable hands of Adam McKay.
Rated R for pervasive language and some sexuality/nudity.
Running Time: 130 minutes