In Adam McKay's comic and clear-eyed adaptation of Michael Lewis' "The Big Short," a handful of finance speculators — outsiders and oddballs — predict a downturn in the housing market only to realize, to their horror and immense profit, that they've effectively bet against America, and won.
It's a rollicking, outrage-fueled odyssey through the financial collapse of 2008, from the carefree offices on Wall Street to the vacant subdivisions in Florida, that gradually reveals not just a market bubble but a colossally bankrupt system and a nation that blissfully teetered into absurdity.
As one of the pre-eminent comedy directors, McKay has shifted into a more realistic, dramatic world only to find a farce too ridiculous for satire. And as anyone who has been paying attention to McKay's comedies can attest, his humor has always come laced with biting political subtext: the TV news of "Anchorman," George W. Bush-era America in "Talladega Nights," white collar crime in "The Other Guys."
He has kept his loose and antic style, leaving his starry cast — including Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt — ample room for improvising. They are part of the enticements of "The Big Short," which strains hard to make the complex finance of its subject digestible and entertaining, including occasional instructional interludes from the likes of Margot Robbie (in a bubble bath), Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez — eye candies for brief explanations of collateralized-debt obligations and other instruments of financial minutia.
Our central characters are a foursome of (mostly) unrelated investors. There's the glass-eyed, heavy metal-listening trader Michael Burry (Bale), a the brash-talking banker Jared Vennett (Gosling); a cynical hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Carell); and two young investors (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock) who are mentored by Ben Rickert (Pitt), a retired veteran who now disdains Wall Street.
Sifting through the data, they each come to the conclusion that the bedrock of the U.S. economy — the housing market — has quietly been weakening. When everyone is riding the market to record highs, they swim against the tide.
The story of the 2008 crisis has, of course, been told many times before. The best portrait of the era's out-of-control excesses was Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street" (set in the '80s and '90s but made in the wake of the 2008 collapse). None captured the personal pain more than Ramin Bahrani's eviction drama "99 Homes," released earlier this year.
What sets "The Big Short" apart is its steadily accumulating rage. It's a movie for that modern American experience of looking around and seeing so much corporate corruption that one's head might explode. Carell captures this best, playing Baum as a pressure cooker who goes from angry to seething. What scares them most is that their bet doesn't pay off when it should; the system is so interlaced with mutual benefit that the market is rigged.
Eventually, Burry is left to label it "a completely fraudulent system." Baum does him one better. He sees "an era of fraud" all around, from the White House to Wall Street. Barry Bonds and Lance Armstrong adorn TV screens in the background.
McKay's film is furious, spilling criticism at every door, from the SEC to bond credit ratings companies to the press. But it's also relentlessly playful, with characters speaking into the camera, pointing out inaccuracies in the script (by McKay and Charles Randolph) and stuffing in hip-hop montages.
Gosling is best at the direct address. But the self-aware trickery wears thin. Less overt is the tantalizing way the life lurks on the outside of the frame in pictures of kids on desks and in family obligations canceled for a late night at the office. Within McKay's enjoyable, frightful, passionate rant of a movie is a plea: There's more to life than this, you know.
What: "The Big Short." Directed by Adam McKay. a Paramount Pictures release
Star rating (out of four):
With: Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling
MPAA rating: R for "pervasive language and some sexuality/nudity"
Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes
At: Beacon Cinema (Pittsfield) and Triplex Cinema (Great Barrington)