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Film review: "The Big Short"

The bitter truth


You wouldn't expect to find a filmmaker like Adam McKay behind "The Big Short," an ambitiously brainy satirical take on the 2008 financial crisis, but it turns out McKay's unique comedic sensibilities are a perfect fit. Best known as the director of stupid-smart comedies like "Step Brothers" and the "Anchorman" movies, McKay is able to find the humor and laughs in the material -- this time he makes sure they're the kind that tend to catch in your throat.

Based on the best-selling 2010 non-fiction book by Michael Lewis ("Moneyball," "The Blind Side"), the film focuses on those financial wheelers and dealers who recognized the precarious state of America's housing market and saw the collapse coming, but decided the best solution was to profit off of it. Socially awkward, money-managing savant, Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is the first to notice the telltale signs, advising his firm to "short" the housing market -- basically meaning to bet on the likelihood that the investments the market has been built upon will fail.

There's hotshot banker Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) -- also serving as our fourth wall-breaking guide through the film -- who brings the information to the attention of hedge-funder Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his team (Hamish Linklater, Rafe Spall, and Jeremy Strong). Disillusioned with the world of high finance but still in its thrall, Baum is the film's conscience, raging against corruption of the industry even as he benefits from it.

Finally, Jamie Shipley and Charlie Geller (Finn Wittrock and John Magaro) are small-time investors who stumble across the information and bring in retired investment guru Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to shepherd them through the deal. Our cast of financial Cassandras hope to profit off a crooked system, but even they underestimate the extent of the greed, corruption, and stupidity at play. Each of these teams are mostly working independently of one another, and the film zigzags back and forth between their storylines with the madcap energy of a heist film.

"The Big Short" is loaded with financial jargon -- from "collateralized debt obligations" to "credit default swaps" -- and the barrage of information becomes overwhelming to anyone who isn't an experienced investment banker. As the characters are quick to point out, these terms were all invented by Wall Street types, and they're meant to confuse us, all the better to make it seem like no one else could possibly do what they do. The script, by McKay and Charles Randolph, comes up with some clever ways to illustrate some of its more complicated concepts. There's on-screen text, Jenga visual aids, and Margot Robbie popping up in a bubble bath, sipping champagne, and lecturing us on the intricacies of subprime mortgages (Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez also show up to host their own mini economics seminars). It's fun and surprisingly informative, and the effect is such that the dense, complex subject starts to feel relatively light and breezy. It's still mostly impenetrable, but Randolph and McKay make sure that the most crucial concepts remain clear.

The massive cast of characters, ADD editing, and handheld camera work can all be a little much. The film's pace is relentless, and the film seems almost impatient to convey information (to the extent that scenes have a tendency to cut a beat or two early, chopping off the tail-end of the actor's words). One imagines that editor Hank Corwin must have had an aneurysm putting it all together, but the breakneck speed and in-your-face style are all in an effort to make sure people finally pay attention.

McKay balances a puckish sense of humor with righteous anger: he wants you to leave pissed off. With its clear-eyed assessment of Wall Street's greed and stupidity, "The Big Short" explores similar thematic territory as Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street." This film is infinitely more blatant in its condemnation, though I never understood complaints that "Wolf" glorified the world it depicted, accusations that I can't help feeling say more about the viewer than it does the film.

"The Big Short" leaves a bitter aftertaste as we realize all those laughs are coming -- quite literally -- at our expense. The real trick of the film is found in the way we naturally want to root for the characters to succeed, but the second they do, McKay is right there to remind us of the real-life stakes: every penny of their financial gain came when millions of hardworking, everyday citizens lost everything. Yay?