'The Big Short' Proves Greed Is Good Comedy

Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

The premise: It’s the mid-2000s and everything’s peachy with the American housing bubble. Just kidding! The Big Short pieces together the story of a few astute number-crunchers who caught wind of the subprime-mortgage crisis and fought to expose it in the only way they knew how: by making shitloads of money.

The cast: Christian Bale as a death metal-pounding hedge-fund founder who discovers the impending collapse, Steve Carell as a loose-cannon money manager who bets big on the demise of banks, Ryan Gosling as a mortgage trader who tips off Carell and makes billions in the process, and Brad Pitt as a wise-elder trader who guides two budding Wall Streeters toward the windfall.

The director: The very funny Adam McKay (Anchorman, Step Brothers) adapts a serious book by Michael Lewis (Moneyball, Liar's Poker) and keeps it seriously funny. At least we can laugh together as greed-driven idiocy flushes the economy down the toilet.

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Paramount Pictures/YouTube

What works:The Big Short isn’t a take-down-the-banks caper film. The men at the heart of the story are not heroes. No one saves the day. This is history. And because it involves a lot of potentially impenetrable financial lingo, McKay has characters break the fourth wall to talk us through it all, as when Gosling's slick trader addresses the camera to tell us how the banks designed their mortgage system to dupe the public. Celebrities also pop up as themselves in various explanatory cameos, including Margot Robbie, who dishes on credit-default swaps while soaking in a bubble bath. McKay wants us to pay attention; you don't look away from Margot Robbie in a tub.

McKay also deftly uses humor to control his residual anger about the financial collapse. In one scene, Carrell’s character heads to the Florida suburbs to interview strippers who have been convinced to invest in multiple homes. The devilish juxtaposition of lap dances and macroeconomic lessons is the essence of The Big Short’s ingenious duality.

What doesn’t: Guiding us through the muck is a Herculean task, and The Big Short keeps one hand on our shoulder, cutting to the chase as often as possible. But the financial crisis is dizzying and the explanations are mind-numbing -- the movie can only do so much to keep us in the know and still come in under the two-hour mark. Any issues are amplified by a shooting style that's often active to the point of distraction. It's a risk; to best reflect the chaos of actual events, The Big Short deals in chaos.

Paramount Pictures

The MVP: Carell channels the rage of the people with unexpected force and Gosling delivers the funniest performance of his career (maybe it’s time to stop forcing his leading-man status?). But Christian Bale steals the show with his subtly tragic arc. His Michael Burry, a misunderstood, Asperger-stricken hedge-fund manager, begins the movie by funneling millions of his clients' money into the insurance gamble of a lifetime. His calculations predict banks will fall in a year, but it takes three; he's reduced to a husk of his former self before a swift “TOLDJA” yanks him back from the brink. The turmoil is excruciating, yet Bale’s performance is resilient and often wickedly funny.

See it if... Your blood pressure is at a new low; you want to see Hollywood’s finest school you in AP Economics; you’re worried about the next housing bubble.

Skip it if... You strongly believe in “ignorance is bliss”; you thought Wolf of Wall Street gave traders a bad rap; you’re an employee of Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac.

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Matt Patches is Thrillist’s Entertainment Editor. He previously wrote for Grantland, Esquire.com, Vulture, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Guardian. He fears the banks. Find him on Twitter @misterpatches.