Fueled by impotent, blustery outrage, Adam McKay's The Big Short, about the grotesque banking and investing practices that led to the 2008 financial collapse, is about as fun and enlightening as a cranked-up portfolio manager's rue-filled comedown after an energy-shot bender. Based on Michael Lewis's 2010 bestselling book of the same name, McKay's film operates on a gambit as audacious — and as ultimately unsuccessful — as the one that J.C. Chandor risked in Margin Call (2011), which also centers on the economic catastrophe of seven years ago: Both ask viewers not only to empathize with but to find heroic obscenely overpaid finance workers. The Big Short goes even further, queasily valorizing some of those who profited from the global fiscal freakout. Depicting several of its characters breaking down in tears, Chandor's project is a white-collar weepie; in contrast, McKay's bumptious movie awkwardly combines fourth-wall-breaking gimmickry and flaccid indignation with the goofball energy that defines his comedies.
One of McKay's funny pictures, The Other Guys (2010), ended, somewhat incongruously, with a welter of graphs and charts about CEO billions and bank bailouts and other figures from the ledger of turbo-capitalism. Rather than stoke fury, though, that data dump had the wan effect of restating the obvious, rehashing headlines from the previous two years that had already been dissected and fulminated against in media old and new. Concluding a pleasingly absurd cop comedy, one that features a villainous tycoon in a less successful subplot, these statistics came off as a hectoring rant by a cranky civics teacher. A similar ersatz, too-late populism motors The Big Short — the movie begins with a quote from Mark Twain — though the cognitive dissonance it produces is even more dizzying than that generated by The Other Guys' closing credits: The handful of fact-based finance guys the film tracks, who saw that the economy was headed for calamity and made billions of dollars while millions of people lost homes and jobs, are held up as conscience-bearers.
Or, more precisely, as "outsiders and weirdos [who] saw what no one else could...the giant lie at the heart of the economy," in the words of oily Wall Street banker Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who also serves as the film's narrator. Sporting a Chia Pet perm and a vaguely outer-borough-sounding accent, Gosling is the first in the cast to directly address the audience, a device deployed to diminishing return. The eccentrics extolled in the opening scene include Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a Northern California–based MD and money manager who invents the credit default swap in the mid-Aughts, when the film's central action kicks off; Mark Baum (Steve Carell, also hideously coiffed), an obnoxious hedge fund manager whose backstory involving a dead-by-suicide brother somehow positions him as the film's most steadfast moral compass; and Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), a onetime trader for Chase turned secular eschatologist who advises two young, aspiring operators, Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro), how to bet against Wall Street.
These financiers all gather at the American Securitization Forum in Las Vegas, save for Burry, who is mostly shown in his grim San Jose office, scribbling on a whiteboard, or wailing on his drum kit in his basement (like the love the physician/rapacious capitalist has for cheap haircuts, cargo shorts and going barefoot, his enthusiasm for heavy metal is treated as further proof of his ennobling nonconformity). There, as Jared tells Mark and his lieutenants, they can see "how dumb this money really is." The cash may be stupid, and stupidly abundant, but the financial agreements that make it so are impossibly abstruse: "Who understands this stuff?" Jamie frets to Charlie.
McKay, who co-wrote The Big Short's script with Charles Randolph, decides that the best way to explain the deliberately obfuscating terminology is to add another distracting element to the film: cutting away to cameoing notables, of varying degrees of star wattage, who try to simplify the jargon, as Anthony Bourdain does with "collateralized debt obligation." The glib strategy further clutters a movie already too busy with characters looking right at us to offer asides and with vapid intertitles. (In addition to the Twain adage, The Big Short includes this profundity: "Truth is like poetry. And most people fucking hate poetry," a maxim "overheard at a Washington, D.C., bar.")
The first celebrity to offer one of these mini vocab lessons is Margot Robbie, who parses "subprime mortgage" while soaking in a bubble bath and nursing a flute of Champagne. The Australian actress made her breakthrough performance as the wife of Leonardo DiCaprio's Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), a movie whose manic energy McKay clearly tries to emulate. Both savagely funny and utterly depleting, Scorsese's film, about a real-life stock market scammer ascendant in the 1980s, remains the most potent in conveying the indecencies of an unfettered economic system and those it rewards, largely through the unrelenting depiction of the main character's debauchery. Scorsese's Jordan Belfort is granted no redemption. The Big Short, meanwhile, ends in mid-September 2008 as one of the main players, on the terrace of his Park Avenue home, wrings his hands over the millions he's about to make from others' deprivations. Since I haven't read Lewis's book, I don't know how distorted this conclusion is. But the stupefying cloyingness of the finale makes me hope that the next economics tome to be adapted, even as a lavish musical, is Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century.