The Big Short Review: Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell "Mesmerize," Celebrity Cameos Are "Delightful”

Steve Carell plays Mark Baum, and Ryan Gosling plays Jared Vennett in The Big Short. Credit: Jaap Buitendijk/Paramount Pictures

3 1/2 stars (out of 4 stars)

There will be a point in this cinematic finance lesson when you think to yourself, What does any of this mean?! At that moment, Ryan Gosling looks straight to the camera and nonchalantly admits, “I bet you have no idea what any of this means.”

That cheeky self-awareness is part of what makes The Big Short — which chronicles the events leading up to the 2008 economic collapse — one of the most absorbing and entertaining of the year. Bursting with creative energy, it deftly deconstructs one of the most devastating periods in recent history. Don’t worry if you’re fuzzy on the details. That’s actually preferable.

Gosling, playing a sleazoid alpha-male trader named Jared Vennett, is our narrator. As he explains at the top, the banking business is full of “outsiders and weirdos.” This film, based on Michael Lewis’ searing 2010 bestseller of the same name, focuses on the few who had the foresight to size up the booming housing market and bet against (i.e., “short”) it. Let’s meet them! Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is a social misfit who spends his days blasting death metal and analyzing numbers on his computer. Short-fused money manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) despises big banking and is still racked with guilt over the suicide of his banker brother. And investor turned New Ager Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt, also a producer) advises two overeager disciples on how to read the money tea leaves.

None of these dynamo characters ever share a scene together. They’re united only in their ability to question conventional wisdom.

Maybe college finance majors will be able to grasp the beyond-complex terminology, which is delivered at a breakneck pace. Director Adam McKay, the former Saturday Night Live head scribe who helmed Anchorman, knows you’re confused. This is why he conveys the information in a way that’s (relatively) digestible and (massively) engaging to the audience.

Don’t understand the meaning of a subprime loan and why it’s so faulty? Enter Margot Robbie, the Wolf of Wall Street minx herself, relaxing in a bubble bath to break it down. Later, Anthony Bourdain compares a CDO (collateralized debt obligation) to the contents of a stew, while Selena Gomez shows up at a Las Vegas blackjack table. The star pop-ups are so delightful that you probably won’t notice that their summaries aren’t particularly helpful. In fact, some might argue that their presence borders on the condescending.

But McKay is making a shrewd point here: If only geniuses can decipher the inner-workings of the market, it’s no wonder the bubble burst. The elite Wall Street-ers were able to look at our utter bafflement and prey on it.

Not so funny now, eh? And yet, it is. Even when you’re lost, you’ll bask in the slick production and the characters’ sublime wit. A few years ago, everybody would have shorted a comedic pairing of Gosling and Carell. Now the two Oscar nominees build off their Crazy, Stupid, Love chemistry in dazzling, ear-popping scenes. (Their characters reluctantly decide to go into business together.) Even when the two rage on about synthetic loans, they mesmerize.

Maybe too much. For a film unafraid to pose ethical questions, the biggest one might be how to root for likable people poised to profit off the suffering of millions. The moral ambiguity is frighteningly apparent as the clock ticks to those dark scary days of 2008: Investment firms shut down, homeowners are left on the street, and saved dollars have disappeared — but there’s a perverse joy in watching our favorite investors rake in the dough. Only Pitt’s character is a voice of reason, reminding his overeager protégés about the damaging side effects of unemployment rates and admonishing the guys to “stop dancing.”

Yes, this is a comedy. But it’s a tragedy too.

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