"Mortgage-backed securities, subprime loans, tranches — it’s pretty confusing, right?" slick-to-the-touch banker Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) asks in voiceover not far into The Big Short. "Does it make you feel bored? Or stupid? Well, it’s supposed to. Wall Street loves to use confusing terms to make you think only they can do what they do. Or even better, for you to just leave them the fuck alone." And then, to alleviate those issues, he introduces Margot Robbie as herself, in all her golden pulchritude, drinking champagne while sitting in a bubble bath and explaining in her native Aussie accent to the camera what, exactly, those terms mean.
It's not the only time The Big Short enlists a celebrity to deliver a particularly knotty bit of financial terminology. Whenever it gets to an especially tricky concept, either a famous figure shows up to talk the audience through it, or Gosling, in his role as the narrator as well as a character in the story, breaks the fourth wall to do it himself. And there are a lot of concepts to grapple with here, because The Big Short, adapted from Moneyball author Michael Lewis's nonfiction book of the same name, aims to do nothing less than explain everything that caused the 2008 economic crisis, and why it could absolutely happen again.
In a crazily noble and doomed way, The Big Short is an educational movie for grown-ups. That Robbie scene is a miniature version of what the film attempts to do as a whole — to enlist big stars like Gosling, Christian Bale, Steve Carell, and Brad Pitt in order to make palatable a complicated scenario with an end result that everyone's painfully familiar with. It has, ahead of its release, been described as a companion to The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese's excessive, enjoyable portrait of a master of the universe as an unrepentant douchebag, only with a conscience. But it's more like an advanced version of those Sesame Street sketches in which someone like Mark Ruffalo shows up to explain the vocab word "empathy" to Murray Monster.
Its characters are a collection of finance industry outsiders who all spot what everyone in the heart of the banking world remains blind to — that there's a housing bubble due to burst. Bale plays Michael Burry, an eccentric, California-based neurologist turned hedge fund manager, while John Magaro and Finn Wittrock are younglings from Colorado who started a hedge fund in their garage and who enlist the help of a former banker turned survivalist named Ben Rickert, played by Pitt, to bet big on credit failure. Carell plays the fractious Mark Baum, a money manager based on Steve Eisman, whose team (which includes Hamish Linklater, Rafe Spall, and Jeremy Strong) gets involved with Gosling's character, based on Deutsche Bank mortgage trader Greg Lippmann.
If that sounds like a whole lot of finance types to keep track of as they each pursue a path toward making a fortune off the demise of the American economy, well, none of them really matter. They're vehicles for delivering more information about what went wrong and how to the audience.
Baum and his posse take field trips to Florida to examine stretches of homes whose mortgages are underwater, talking to strippers leveraged to the hilt on multiple houses and the smirking brokers who helped them get there. They, along with some other characters, travel to Las Vegas for the American Securitization Forum, where they don't bother to keep the contempt or disbelief off their faces while talking to indifferent SEC agents and banker bros who groan, "Please stop being such a buzzkill," when anyone tries to get serious.
The Big Short is directed by Adam McKay, the former SNL head writer best known for highly quotable stupid-smart comedies like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Step Brothers. The Big Short is a comedy only in that it's not really a drama — it doesn't do jokes, really, but it does maintain a light touch and documentary-style camerawork that evokes a sprawling, high-stakes version of The Office in which a small set of characters have magically been awakened to the greed, arrogance, and obliviousness of all of their colleagues.
McKay is a famous and prolific purveyor of comedy, but he's always had an angry, relevant streak — The Other Guys, his 2010 Will Ferrell–Mark Wahlberg buddy cop comedy, rolled its credits alongside graphics illustrating facts about the financial crisis and the country's growing income inequality. The Big Short is like that section blown up into a full feature, and its excellent intentions are only undermined by how boring it really believes its subject matter to be. McKay, who wrote the screenplay with Charles Randolph, approaches his material with a spoonful-of-sugar mentality: Here are some movie stars, here are cutaways to keep talky scenes interesting, and here's economist Richard H. Thaler with Selena Gomez to explain synthetic CDOs.
And between those dashes of sweetness are giant chunks of undisguised didacticism, characters delivering lectures all but to camera (or, sometimes, right to it). McKay's problem is that while he feels strongly that the events he's chronicling are urgent and essential, he also assumes that no one else will without his tap-dancing as fast as he can. Rather than have faith that there's something interesting about this subject matter — subject matter from a book compelling enough to spend 28 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list — he lays it out all dry and with the occasional touch of condescension, then adds trimming to make it more appealing, like a giant plate of boiled broccoli sprinkled with a handful of bacon bits.
The Big Short is a movie about the financial crisis, how our economy failed because everyone in a place of power was incentivized to do irresponsible things that benefited them at the cost of the greater system, and about how the lack of consequences and regulations means we're all surely doomed to repeat ourselves. But it ends up feeling like an equally depressing movie about the entertainment industry, and about how someone at the top of the comedy game feels the only way for a mainstream movie to tackle this kind of serious subject matter is to trick people into watching it.
Not even Margot Robbie and her champagne flute can make that look good.