One might not immediately think of the financial collapse of 2008 as the stuff of comedy, but Adam McKay, best known for silly Will Ferrell comedies like Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and Step Brothers, saw humor in the events that hurt so many people. But, importantly, he does not ignore the pain, and as a result, The Big Short is a well-rounded film that activates both the funny bone and sincere pathos.
The story is told in three discrete plot threads. It starts with Christian Bale as Michael Burry, an M.D. who has started a hedge fund. He’s a quirky genius, given to listening to loud heavy metal music and not wearing shoes. He sees signs that the housing market, which has historically been stable, is in a bubble that is about to burst. He decides to short, or bet against, this market, and goes to several banks, who are amused but glad to take his money. He ends up sinking more than a billion dollars into the bet, infuriating his investors.
A trader, Ryan Gosling (who narrates the film, frequently breaking the third wall) gets wind of this and sees that Bale is right. He goes to a hedge fund run by Steve Carell, who has anger problems (maybe it’s because of his bad haircut). He ends up convinced after researching the subprime mortgage business, which gives mortgages to people even if they don’t qualify. He is astounded when two mortgage brokers laugh about credit checks, citing all the money they’re making (“I was a bartender, now I have a boat,” says one). He also learns that Standard and Poor’s cooks their ratings with the intent of keeping their business away from competitors.
The third thread has two small-time fund managers (Finn Witrock and John Magaro) see the bubble, and with the help of a retired banker (Brad Pitt, who also produces) are able to make millions. But, they are cautioned by Pitt, these riches come at the expense of common people, who will lose their houses, their jobs, and their pensions.
McKay, realizing this is tough stuff to understand, tries every trick in the book to make it understandable. He frequently uses others to step out of the film and explain things, such as Margot Robbie in a bubble-bath, chef Anthony Bourdain, and Selena Gomez. While that may sound annoying on paper, it works very well.
The film also, quite rightly so, maintains a sense of outrage as we, mostly through the eyes of Carell and his traders, realize how corrupt and stupid the banking industry is. In a scene of both great sorrow and anger, Carell expresses how the bankers will survive (indeed, only one person went to jail) but it will all be blamed on the poor and immigrants.
The Big Short is great entertainment, but never forgets what all this greed wrought.