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 queasily valorizes some of those who profited from the global fiscal freakout. McKay’s bumptious movie awkwardly combines fourth-wall-breaking gimmickry and flaccid indignation with the goofball energy that defines his comedies, like The Other Guys.
An ersatz, too-late populism motors The Big Short, and the movie produces dizzying cognitive dissonance: The handful of fact-based finance guys the film tracks, who saw that the economy was headed for calamity and made billions 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). 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 include Michael Burry (Christian Bale), an MD and money manager who invents the credit default swap, and 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. 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.