After the rise of alternative comedy, driven in large part by the creators and alumni of the Upright Citizens Brigade, several performers known for their funny work successfully managed to branch out. Stars like Louis C.K. and Jenny Slate have won accolades for their dabblings in pitch-black humor, and actors such as Steve Carell (Foxcatcher) and Sarah Silverman (Masters of Sex) have excelled in dramatic roles on both the big and small screens. Now, Adam McKay, former Saturday Night Live writer and the director of just about every funny Will Ferrell film from the past decade (Anchorman, The Other Guys, etc.), has helmed a movie about the disastrous 2008 collapse of the housing market, based on a nonfiction book by financial journalist Michael Lewis. The subject matter is heady, but McKay pulls out all the stops in an effort to underline how misplaced hubris and greed resulted in millions of people losing their homes and jobs, with no real consequences for the majority of the bankers and managers truly responsible for the carnage.
To help stir up the requisite outrage and laughs needed to pull this movie off, McKay brought in heavyweights like Carell, Christian Bale, and Brad Pitt, and utilizes fourth-wall-breaking commentary to give this wide-ranging tale the feel of a cautionary documentary. In addition, Ryan Gosling pulls double duty as both the de facto narrator and the character of Jared Vennett, a smooth-talking, successful mortgage trader based on the real-life Greg Lippmann. Vennett decides to short the housing market after learning about a hedge-fund manager (Bale) who has been betting against a variety of subprime mortgages to the tune of 1.3 billion dollars. As Vennett discovered in his work for Deutsche Bank, a variety of high-risk housing loans are being grouped together as CDOs, which eventually cause the whole system to...well, we'll stop there, because a good deal of the film's acidic laughs come from having this dilemma explained to us by Gosling and several unexpected guests.
Vennett partners with a team from an independent money-management firm, which is led by a cynical, tightly wound executive portrayed by Carell in another performance worthy of high-level accolades. Pitt provides some dry levity as a skilled former trader roped back into the game by a couple of shrewd young investors (played by John Magaro and Finn Wittrock in capable turns), who require his financial backing and guidance.
The high-quality actors benefit from a superb screenplay by McKay and Charles Randolph that allows them to casually siphon humor from their characters' anger, paranoia, and disgust. After several terrific films that mined guffaws from outsize and outlandish individuals, McKay relies on real-life subtlety, tics, and gravitas here to bring these players to life. The explanations of mortgage bonds, subprime loans, and tranches sometimes come off as slightly smug, which makes us crave more of Pitt's dry, prescient financial veteran. The Big Short is also guilty of laying its moral agenda on pretty thick with the pair of upstart investors, employing them as a Greek chorus who practically spell out the movie's themes in bright neon lights.
These are minor qualms, though, considering that this is an impressive, out-of-left-field turn from an established comedy director. Carell delivered an all-time-great comic performance as Anchorman's Brick Tamland in his prior collaboration with McKay, and the actor achieves another career milestone here by playing the smartest guy in the room, one who's burdened by the weight of both professional foresight and personal grief. Meanwhile, Gosling has never been funnier, and Bale makes us feel the inner turmoil of a lifelong outsider finding himself on an island yet again. The Big Short is a well-crafted and important comedy wrapped around a genuinely harrowing drama. It will make viewers both belly laugh and ponder the highly unsettling relationship between big banks and the government, all within the same scene. In what feels like another debut, McKay has made an enlightening and engaging picture that shouldn't be missed.