No subject in the world is inherently interesting or uninteresting, for it's always about the communicative method or channel used to promote or inform one about the subject that is either interesting or not. Having said that, some subjects are more alienating than others, and one of those subjects is economics/finance, largely because of its dependency upon a plethora of terminology and jargon that usually cannot be adequately defined without including other terminology or jargon. Before you know it, searching the definition of something like a "Roth IRA" leads you to Google searches about embezzlement and quantitative easing in efforts to try and circumvent and define what you were originally looking for.
Thankfully, Adam McKay's The Big Short assumes the audience is fairly stupid and blissfully ignorant when it comes to the interworkings of what led to the global economic crisis of 2007-2008, which saw record unemployment and catastrophic results for the usually reliable housing market. In true movie fashion, we observe the financial crash, not from an insider standpoint, where sure-fire, grade-A trades and exchanges are being made, but by a plethora of quirky outsiders trying to run away from a boulder that keeps gaining on them until it flattens them and everyone in their tracks. The only ones saved are the ones who didn't manage to fall or stumble when pushing said boulder down the hill in the first place.
We initially meet a quirky hedge fund manager named Michael Burry (Christian Bale), who discovers that the U.S. housing market is based on a series of subprime loans (which, we are told by Margot Robbie as she soaks in a bubblebath whilst sipping champagne, may as well be synonymous with "s***") and is inevitably going to collapse sometime in the second quarter of 2007. Being that the housing market is often viewed as the safest bet in America, Michael begins to go around to different banks to bet against the stability and long-term security of the housing market in efforts to profit from the impending disaster.
Then there's Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), a fairly small-time investor, who winds up putting in his own money to bet against the housing market, along with Mark Baum (Steve Carell), a cynical and depressed banker of many years. The two wind up discovering that the market collapse is further aided by the solicitation of collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), basically collections of the aforementioned subprime loans that come packaged together and market as competent and reliable investments.
Finally, there's Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), two young-bloods anxious to break into the financial market. The inexperienced duo enlist in the help of a retired, conservative banker named Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), who helps them make decisions with their money. Unlike the other more experienced men, both Charlie and Jamie lack the kind of gusto and namesake that allows them into the offices of big name bankers. As a result, they pine for a bigger piece of the pie in a smaller way, largely by lounging in their parents' basements, hunched over their iPads.
The Big Short functions as a competent, satirical anthology that breaks down the financial crisis - that is now nearly a decade old, if you can believe that - enough to be informative and entertaining. Considering this is from Adam McKay, a frequent collaborator with Will Ferrell and Funny or Die, responsible for films like Casa De Mi Padre, The Other Guys, and Step Brothers, this is a huge step in the right direction for him as a name in comedy and satire. Rather than focusing on a bargain-barrel Spanish telenovela satire or a tired, mean-spirited comedy based around who can yell the loudest, McKay sets his sights on peddling information through the most communicable form - entertainment. If you can succeed in meriting consistent laughs while teaching an audience something, you have profoundly succeeded at two things many have a difficult time accomplishing in a separate sense. That alone is worth considerable praise.
While the screenplay by McKay and Charles Randolph is undoubtedly a big part at why this film succeeds, The Big Short is a true testament to brilliant comedic acting on various cylinders, as well. The men of the hour, specifically, are both Bale and Carell, seriously taking on opposite personas that they pull off to a tee. Bale plays confused and downright quirky with just the right amount of edge to make him believable rather than hopelessly incompetent or downright silly, and Carell's sporadic bouts of rage and lack of self-awareness make him all the more watchable screen presence. Other performances, like Gosling's, who serves as the infrequent, anti-hero narrator, is notable for its brash charm, in addition to Pitt, who works largely because he's even more understated and harder to define than in his latest film By the Sea.
The Big Short has a lot of comedic value, but it's nonetheless a frightening depiction of where America is currently at; a depressing oligarchy, controlled and manipulated by those with money at the mercy of those without. We've seen "The Great Recession of 2007," as it's sometimes called, plunge numerous working class and poor families into further states of hopelessness, while those who helped cause and further the effects of the recession have gone on to have a road of many ups and few downs since then. McKay's eye, ear, and talent for conducting satire in a way that's simultaneously uproariously funny, in addition to having the ability to be truly upsetting, is quite marvelous and unexpected, and one can only hope that with proper recognition and compensation for his efforts on this film, he furthers down this path rather than the one he was previously on.