Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carrell, Brad Pitt, Marisa Tomei, Melissa Leo, Finn Wittrock, Max Greenfield, Billy Magnuson, Rafe Spall, Tracy Letts, Margo Robbie

This Oscar-nominated dark comedy succeeds – and the people in the film succeed – by betting on failure. While the rest of us were reeling from the financial crash of 2008 – foreclosing our houses, losing jobs, watching our retirement funds disappear – a small group of counter-thinkers were getting rich.

Director/co-writer Adam McKay (Talladega Nights, Anchorman) finally arrives with a film that entertains while it infuriates. It’s callous, cavalier comedy about a subject sometimes hard to understand: subprime loans. Next to Spotlight – another true story about uncovering a scandal – The Big Short has the best ensemble cast this year.

The Big Short is loaded with a strong cast, including Pitt, Gosling, Bale, and Carrell.

The Big Short is loaded with a strong cast, including Pitt, Gosling, Bale, and Carrell.

The Big Short follows a bunch of latter-day doomsayers, people who saw what everyone else ignored. The housing market – with its practices of hiding dangerous investments, using retirement funds, and pushing adjusted rate mortgages – was going to fail. It became the second worst financial crisis America has ever faced.

Wonky investors like Bale, Carrell, and Pitt bet against the house. As their snide compatriot Gosling explains to us, they knew disaster was coming. They offered credit default swaps; they would buy late, failing mortgage bonds and then purchase default insurance with huge payoffs. Then, all they had to do was patiently wait for the housing market to fail to collect their insurance money. It sounds unethical; it was perfectly legal. It was legalized gambling. They benefitted from betting against a crooked system teetering on the brink.

These oddballs were the only ones cheering the crash.

Director/co-writer Adam McKay goes from Talladega Nights and Anchorman to getting nominations for his directing and script.

Director/co-writer Adam McKay goes from Talladega Nights and Anchorman to getting nominations for his directing and script.

It’s all based on a book written by Michael Lewis (Moneyball, The Blind Side). Lewis has a talent for finding interesting characters and defining complex situations.

McKay runs Lewis’s reporting through a cinematic lens replete with editing reminiscent of Steven Soderbergh films like Oceans 11 and Traffic. McKay also brilliantly uses quick, comic cut-aways. At one point, sexy Margo Robbie is in a bathtub explaining to us how the funds were compromised…so we’ll all pay attention. At other points, he uses Selena Gomez at a poker table or super-chef Anthony Bourdain hovering over a pot of rotten seafood. Metaphors.

The Big Short is chock full of crazed, delightful performances, starting with the eccentric neurologist-turned-investor Bale. (He cannot quit playing with his glass eyeball). It’s a flashy role that’s earned him a Best Supporting Actor nomination. However, everyone here shines through the quick-fire editing, from the germophobe Pitt to the amoral Gosling to the rage-aholic Carrell. These characters are the prime reason to watch this dark comedy.

Ratings Key

See it now! Buy the DVD! Quote lines at parties!

Definitely worth the price of admission

It’s useful as a distraction

Maybe if someone else pays and you need a nap

Slightly worse than eternal damnation

The biggest gift in The Big Short is how it simply reports the problems: unscrupulous business people and the government who let them get away with it. In short, it’s lack of oversight. Though it’s easy to see how George W. Bush’s administration tipped a bad situation into worldwide financial disaster, the question isn’t about further lambasting his failed presidency. It’s about the dangerous, foolish price of thinking we can ever, ever trust people to think altruistically and ethically with our money. There are no heroes here – just greedy people seeing what they can get away with, helping themselves, betting on our houses and 401Ks.

The amazing thing is The Big Short shows all this while providing us vitriol as well as entertainment. It makes for one of the year’s best films.

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