That knowing wink is all over the movie, which is an unlikely but oddly effective mixture of dark comedy, character study, based-on-a-true-story drama, rabble-rousing, and detective story. That last element is the most surprising, and the most ingenious; as part of the challenge of explanation, money manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his team poke around the housing market, piecing together the elements of the credit default swaps Vennett is trying to sell him. They run the numbers, they dive into the documents, they visit an all-but-abandoned Florida housing development. And even they’re shocked by what they discover.
They’re not the only ones with an eye on the gathering storm. Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is there before anybody, locking himself in his office at Scion Capital, convincing the banks to create these bets for him, expressing concerns over Goldman-Sachs’ “solvency issues” when it comes time to cash in his chips. Ben Rickert (Pitt) is out of the finance game, but gets back in to help a couple of young protégés. Some of their paths collide directly; others, not until the bubble bursts.
Taken as a whole, it’s a fascinating (and risky) group of people to center a movie on: they’re all cynical, self-righteous, and corrupt, all at once. You’re not “rooting” for them, not exactly — but you’re not rooting against them, either, as they’re all acutely aware of how rigged the game is, and not lacking in colorful descriptions for it. Like Steve Jobs , this is a movie in love with the sound of shoptalk, its characters yelling, joking, prodding, and chattering their way around anyone who can’t keep up. The cast revels in the opportunities such a script presents; all come off well, though Carell and Bale stand out, the former as a braying bullshit-caller who never met a scene he wouldn’t make, the latter in a fiercely physical performance as the alienated soothsayer, playing most of his scenes alone, and rivetingly.
McKay, meanwhile, proves himself an adroit chronicler of more serious stories than Step Brothers. He’s got an admirable sense of play, even in straightforward scenes, lingering in pauses, finding unexpected juxtapositions, parachuting out of scenes mid-sentence or even mid-word, once he’s gotten what he needs out of them. And, yes, he still gets plenty of laughs. (There’s a cut to Steve Carell saying a single line on the phone that gets one of the biggest laughs I’ve heard in a theater recently, through the sheer force of the edit.) While the messaging of the third act could be a bit less explicit, it’s forgivable; it’s the best he can provide in lieu of the conventional payoff (and resultant satisfaction) that eludes a story where there’s no real, tangible resolution. So you can’t help but get caught up in the filmmaker’s indignation over how it plays out. His protagonists’ victory seems decidedly hollow — yes, they won. But we all lost.
The Big Short is out Friday.