Thanks to "Anchorman" (2004) auteur Adam McKay's caustic comedy "The Big Short," the events of the great economic meltdown of 2008 are beginning to make sense. Sure, a number of features and documentaries have been made about it. But they did not have a guest appearance from Margot Robbie, Leo DiCaprio's trophy wife from "The Wolf of Wall Street" (2013), explaining how mortgage bonds work while lolling in a bubble bath.
This and other cameo footnotes, breaking the fourth wall with the likes of Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez speaking directly to viewers, help moviegoers through the glaze-inducing jargon that blinded many to the pending Armageddon. Another meta-device is the sardonic voice-over narration from Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling doing a fair imitation of Bradley Cooper), a trader whose insistence that the sky is about to fall in the world of subprime mortgages makes him a pariah among scoffing colleagues.
So much the better; when he bets against the house that will mean all the more for him. He doesn't think much about the millions who will lose their jobs and homes when his prediction comes true, nor does McKay, at least not until he squeezes out the maximum of laughs and vicarious thrills from the scenario. In that way "Short" has more in common with "Wolf" than just an unclothed Robbie.
But Vennett isn't the only one who's onto the coming catastrophe. Others include Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a doctor turned financial savant who we know is weird because he wears no shoes and drums along with death metal in his office. He's crunched the numbers and sees that the situation is ripe for plundering. And after a visit from Vennett, the churlish cynic Mark Baum (Steve Carell, who reportedly gained 25 pounds for the role), decides his hedge fund management team should also bet against the market.
Only occasionally, as in "Thank You for Smoking" (2005), do these men — and the audience — understand that bucking the system doesn't always make you less a part of it. A couple of New-Agey nudges from crunchy ex-Wall Street guru Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) and some rueful reflections from Baum serve as reminders, but until the grim toll of this folly is spelled out in the film's epilogue, we are all in it for the ride.
THE BIG SHORT
Directed by Adam McKay. Written by McKay and Charles Randolph, based on the book by Michael Lewis. Starring Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt. At Fenway, Kendall Square, West Newton, suburbs. 130 minutes. R (pervasive language, some sexuality/nudity and indecent exposure of the underbelly of our economic system).
Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.