If you saw Adam McKay’s enjoyably goofy cop-comedy “The Other Guys” (2010), you may remember its unusual closing credits, which rolled against an animated graphic explaining the recent financial crisis. Complete with bar graphs and pie charts, the whole presentation had nothing to do with the movie, but it was clever, crystal clear and full of outrage.
The same can’t quite be said for “The Big Short,” essentially McKay’s feature-length version of that short sequence. Based on the nonfiction book by Michael Lewis, “The Big Short” follows several visionary financiers who glimpsed a way to profit from America’s impending economic collapse. Are these the heroes of the story, you ask? That’s just one problem in this well-intentioned but muddled comedy-drama.
“The Big Short” centers on an entertainingly motley crew (mostly fictional versions of real people) played by several excellent actors. Christian Bale is easily the best as Michael Burry, a socially maladroit hedge-fund manager who decides to study U.S. mortgages — thousands of them — and realizes that they’re largely heading for the toilet. His strategy: Place a massive bet against the housing market. If America loses, Burry and his investors win big.
Others get the same crazy idea, including the cocky Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling); two whiz kids (Finn Wittrock and Charlie Geller) and their eccentric guru, Ben Rickert (a deadpan Brad Pitt); and high-strung Mark Baum (a very good Steve Carell), who considers himself a righteous thorn in the banking industry’s side.
With energetic pacing and zippy dialogue, “The Big Short” (written by McKay and Charles Randolph) is often entertaining — a screwball comedy with an angry streak. If only the film could sustain that tone. Among the sharp satire is a compelling but misplaced sequence in which Baum sees firsthand the eerily empty suburbs of Florida. McKay further disrupts his narrative so that random celebrities (Selena Gomez, Anthony Bourdain) can explain complicated concepts to us.
As the big banks try to avoid paying the piper, “The Big Short” asks us to root for our heroes, but is that what they are? The banking industry certainly needs independent voices and outliers, but in the end these financiers made money on our losses. That’s a difficult pill, and “The Big Short” doesn’t have quite enough finesse to make us swallow it.