Look, it’s complicated.
In “The Big Short,” arcane dialogue flies thick and fast. Terms like “tranche” and “credit default swap” and “mortgage-backed securities” and a hailstorm of abbreviations — CDO, FICO and word-salad myriad others — whiz by in such profusion that before long it all seems to spell C-O-N-F-U-S-I-O-N for anyone without a background in the world of high finance or who hasn’t read the Michael Lewis best-seller on which the picture is based.
The words fountain from the mouths of Type A guys in suits in offices, and somehow all that talk — and “The Big Short” is virtually all talk — very quickly becomes weirdly fascinating. It’s made so by the caliber of the actors talking that talk, most notably Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt, and the supercharged intensity they bring to the delivery of the verbiage.
What they’re talking about is, in one of the most unambiguous statements in the picture, “the worst financial crisis of modern times.” That would be the housing bubble and the bursting of same in late in 2008 that sent the U.S. economy into a tailspin from which it has yet to fully recover.
The characters in ”The Big Short” aren’t involved in causing the crash, but they detect it’s on the way through analysis of market trends and figure out how to bet against the economy and make gazillions by doing so.
They’re a quirky crew. Bale’s character is an analytical genius with no social skills who digs deep into data, identifies the coming apocalypse, tries to warn other big-money types and has his warning dismissed. In the standout performance of the picture, a revved-up Carrel plays a hedge fund manager with an abrasive manner and a conscience, the latter of which makes him an exception in that milieu.
Gosling plays the opposite, a sleekly tailored sleaze of a Wall Street banker who is a smug cynic and thinks he’s the most brilliant guy on the planet. Pitt’s character is an investor who has stepped off the fast track, and becomes a kind of grouchy guru to two naive young money managers.
Director/co-screenwriter Adam McKay, whose background is comedy (“Anchorman,” “Talladega Nights”), lightens things up by having characters break the fourth wall now and then to explain in simplified terms what’s really going on. In one scene, it announces that Margot Robie, the striking blonde from “The Wolf of Wall Street,” will make clear the intricacies of mortgage-backed securities. Cut to: Miss Robie. In a bubble bath. Sipping champagne. And her explanation does make sense. Sort of. But I somehow wound up focusing on those bubbles, slowly bursting and … Huh? Where was I? Oh yeah. See the movie. It’s good.
The Big Short
☆☆☆☆ out of 5
Cast: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt.
Director: Adam McKay.
Running time: 2:10.
Rated: R, for pervasive language and some sexuality and nudity.