Lawrence Toppman

‘The Big Short’ is long on satisfaction

Christian Bale stars as Michael Burry in Paramount Pictures' “The Big Short.”
Christian Bale stars as Michael Burry in Paramount Pictures' “The Big Short.” Paramount Pictures

Those of us who never imagined using the words “Adam McKay” and “multiple Oscar nominations” in the same sentence can happily eat crow today. “The Big Short,” which he directed and wrote with Charles Randolph from the book by Michael Lewis, jumps off the screen in every scene and pins an elusive subject firmly in place.

That subject is the American financial collapse of 2007, triggered by the sale of countless unstable mortgages that could never be paid off. As the housing market gave way, investors who had backed it lost billions.

This movie follows a few people who bet the bubble would burst – though that had never happened in American history – and invested in “default swaps,” which would pay off only if the market collapsed. They became enormously rich and made zillioniares of backers who thought they weren’t crazy.

In retrospect, the director of “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights” was a clever choice because he has spent his life in comedy. He can sense when our eyes might glaze over and snap them open with a shock. He knows how to pace a film without dwelling too long on any character or element. He has a sense of the absurd, which anyone handling this material would need.

His most brilliant stroke may have been celebrity appearances when the material turns dry. Ryan Gosling plays a lizard-eyed banker who enriched himself vastly and narrates the film. Every so often, he says things like “I know this sounds confusing. Here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to explain it to you.” Sure enough, the star of “The Wolf of Wall Street” turns up in a sea of bubbles, sipping champagne, to discuss some abstruse economic concept.

Gosling’s the least sympathetic of the main characters. Investor Michael Burry (Christian Bale), who has no social skills but phenomenal acumen, pours all the money with which he’s entrusted into the swaps, against all advice. Young whizbangs Charlie Geller and Jamie Shipley (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock) can’t believe they’ve sniffed out this financial error and enlist former mentor Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to connect them to big-money players.

Most interestingly, perennially skeptical trader Mark Baum (Steve Carell, who stands out) can’t believe the housing market could die and sets out to prove it won’t. To his surprise, all the evidence tells him the union of shameless lenders and gullible homebuyers is like the marriage of dynamite and a gasoline-soaked torch.

You can’t call these guys anti-heroes. They’re like someone finding a wallet with no identifying marks and a wad full of cash in the middle of a desert: Who wouldn’t keep it? They are betting, as so much of America does every day, on the rise and fall of other people’s investments.

And the filmmakers make a larger point: Nobody ever punished lenders, especially greedy banks, for their venality. (Bank of America comes off badly in this picture.) As Geller and Shipley dance with glee, Rickert reminds them they’re dancing on people’s financial graves: Each dollar they earn comes from a family being put on the street. McKay salts the movie with these moments, to remind us of the somber effects of this vast comedy of errors.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

The Big Short

Cast: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, John Magaro, Finn Wittrock, Brad Pitt.

Director: Adam McKay.

Length: 130 minutes.

Rating: R (pervasive language and some sexuality/nudity).