By Richard von Busack
Like a really good punk rock recording, The Big Short is a triumph of snotty tone and fourth-wall breaking, right down the middle between sweet-tempered populism of a Michael Moore, and the smugness of Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. Director Adam McKay (the Anchorman franchise, Step Brothers) makes grim farce out of the traders who made a mint betting on the financial collapse of ’08. It’s based on the book by Berkeley author Michael Lewis (he also wrote Moneyball); in this fictionalized telling, among the few who understood that AAA-rated mortgages were mixed with useless subprimes was the solitary Silicon Valley physician/founder of Scion Capital Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale). Clapping a pair of drumsticks, hanging his jaw in an imitation of a smile, it’s a one-note performance by Bale. Another trader is Mark Baum, a principled Manhattanite who is God’s angry man (a Lee J. Cobbish Steve Carell, in his most impressive movie acting role yet); a guru who quit The Street in disgust (Brad Pitt) and Ryan Gosling as a typical young Wall Street turk—the most cynical of the characters.
McKay makes genial comic use of celebrities, to focus the wandering attention of people who can’t seem to understand how the fleecing worked. If you can’t figure out what a CDO or a subprime mortgage is, what if supermodel Margot Robbie in a bubble bath spelled it out for you? This lightness of tone counterpoints the landscape of financial horror—stories of the so-called “ninja mortgage,” ‘ninja’ an acronym for “no income, no job,” the insane exuberance of the market that turned bankers from dull, solid citizens to frothing gamblers.
The Big Short is short on women, though Melissa Leo and Marisa Tomei provide typically hard-edged supporting work. McKay ends with a new slant on the would-be Capra-style piece de resistance in a more strictly mainstream movie—Carell, giving a speech explaining the intrinsic problem at the heart of committing fraud, has an audience of distracted traders, checking their thrumming cell phones for news of the final swoon of Bear Stearns. In captions, advice by Mark Twain, as well as the words of some guy overheard in a bar, are as dryly funny as The Big Short’s point is urgent. In the end, six million houses were left vacant because of fiscal malfeasance. The people who said it’ll never happen again are also the people who said it would never happen in the first place.