Sure Bet: "The Big Short" informative, enraging and darkly funny

The Big Short (2015)
130 min., rated R.

Being familiar with mortgage bonds, subprime mortgages, credit default swaps, and synthetic collateralized debt obligation isn't a prerequisite for "The Big Short." In fact, the film knows how to simultaneously inform, entertain and enrage, so that's no mean feat. What Michael Lewis achieved with his non-fiction book about the 2008 global financial crisis was upturning audience expectations from what could have read as a dry, tedious reference book. In adapting Lewis' book with co-scribe Charles Randolph, writer-director Adam McKay—yes, Will Ferrell's main man who directed him in the "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy," "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby," "Step Brothers," "The Other Guys" and "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues"—pays even more dividends by daring to use the visual medium and goose up the material with a darkly funny script and an energetic, kitchen-sink visual style.

Leading up to the 2008 collapse, "The Big Short" follows different financial figures who spotted the housing bubble. Founder and manager of hedge fund company Scion Capital, glass-eyed, socially awkward Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale) notices a pattern where the big banks were issuing subprime mortgages. In the meantime, he realizes betting the big banks and stock brokerages would make him a lot of money before the housing market would collapse. When slick Deutsche Bank broker Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) catches wind of Burry's prediction, he tips off stock trader Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his team, Danny Moses (Rafe Spall), Porter Collins (Hamish Linklater) and Vinnie Daniel (Jeremy Strong). Meanwhile, two greenhorn investors, Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), come to Wall Street and try working a hedge fund business out of their garage, and then seek help from retired trader Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt).

"The Big Short" is vital as a real-world tragedy but also scathingly funny as a snarky, damnatory black comedy. With Ryan Gosling's Jared Vennett as the narrator who breaks the fourth wall, the film does not dumb down the financial terminology so much as it breaks things down into layman's terms. The game Jenga is used as a visual aid and characters address the camera, including celebrities; there's Margot Robbie in a bathtub, Anthony Bourdain in the kitchen, and Selena Gomez at a casino blackjack table. Director Adam McKay would seem to be an odd choice for the film, but the seed of this project was germinated during the end credits of 2010 Will Ferrell-Mark Wahlberg comedy "The Other Guys" with a Goldman Sachs diagram. Unexpectedly, McKay brings a lot of filmmaking flash, lending personality and narrative momentum to the proceedings with pop cultural clips and music videos (i.e. Ludacris' "Money Maker" and Gorillaz's "Feel Good Inc.").

There is a wide tapestry of characters here, all of their names being changed (save for Michael Burry), and there are no out-and-out heroes or villains. As Dr. Michael Burry, who works barefoot and turns up the heavy metal in his office, Christian Bale fully embodies the social trainwreck's fidgety mannerisms without the performance coming off self-conscious or too actory. Steve Carell finds humanity in Mark Baum, a man who begins as an abrasive hotshot but then feels angry, morally tainted and isn't without a conscience. The film tries to humanize Mark the most with the loss of his brother. Ryan Gosling is effective at playing a slickster who paints the picture for the rest of us, while big leaguer Brad Pitt is kept more on the sidelines but nonetheless solid as a banker turned world-weary hippie. Not to be ignored, Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater, Jeremy Strong, Finn Wittrock, John Magaro, Marisa Tomei, and Melissa Leo fill out the excellent ensemble.

More than a tad dense and scattered but a very breezy and snappily paced 130 minutes, "The Big Short" could be a hard sell, despite the appeal of the marquee names, but it doesn't alienate audiences. As an apt companion piece to this year's emotionally riveting "99 Homes"a more human and devastating story about families being forced out of their homes by big banks—the film lacks in relatability but makes up for it with outrage and entertainment value. Not unlike 2011's "Moneyball," also an adaptation of a Michael Lewis book about baseball statistics, "The Big Short" takes an esoteric subject that has very little interest to this viewer and makes it a more palatable, even lively experience to process. The particulars of the plot fade a bit from the memory bank (even after two viewings), but the big picture is clear. The viewer already knows the outcome, but like any true story translated into a movie, one still can't believe it. One also can't believe how a humorless, unsexy topic can be the complete opposite.

Grade: B +