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The Big Short takes a dry subject and makes it entertaining, while also making an aching acknowledgment of the real damage done.

Moneyball Deux

Michael Burry as portrayed by Christian Bale
Michael Burry as portrayed by Christian Bale

The Big Short is based on the Michael Lewis book of the same name (albeit without the subtitle Inside the Doomsday Machine, no doubt in order to be marquee friendly). Michael Lewis. He’s the guy who wrote Moneyball. It’s another dry topic, essentially a data analysis behind a new strategy for selecting baseball players in order to compete in the major leagues while on a midmarket budget. On the surface, Moneyball should make for a snoozer of a movie. Instead, it’s a gentle, humorous and inspiring look at a guy, Billy Beane, who thought outside the box. And Brad Pitt – along with the rest of the cast – brought humanity to the data.

The same goes here.

The housing bubble bursting almost 10 years ago isn’t really the stuff of inspiration. For many, it’s the stuff of depression. It’s the epic fail of the big investment banks, the long-gestating collapse that brought down Lehman Brothers in 2008.

How, then, does one make an entertainment out of it? One that is informative and educational, not base and insulting?

Well, director Adam McKay, best known for the comedic stylings of the Anchorman movies – as well as a co-writer of this year’s Ant-Man, takes the source material and – as Bennett Miller did with Moneyball – finds the humanity in the players.

Bondcatcher

At its core, The Big Short revolves around four guys circling the disaster in the making. The four come at it from different vantage points, but with similar motivations. Of course, some of the names have been changed to protect the… uh… well, to protect the players.

Christian Bale (Batman Begins) portrays Michael Burry, a genius with a personality problem. Ryan Gosling (Drive) is Jared Vennett, as portrayed here he’s the most overtly asshole of the bunch. Steve Carell (Foxcatcher – another Michael Lewis source) is Mark Baum, arguably the conscience among the four. Then there’s Brad Pitt (Moneyball) as Ben Rickert, a behind-the-scenes type who assists two mostly clueless and somewhat amiable amateurs.

That’s good star power right there.

But McKay plugs in a little extra mojo to help explain the fineries of the technicalities of the financial atrocities. He gets some third-party help from Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain, Selena Gomez and economist Dr. Richard Thaler.

For example, imagine Margot Robbie sipping champagne in a bath tub. It’s a lovely image indeed. But imagine Margot in such a state while explaining subprime loans. Yeah. And when she’s done with her explanation, she tells the audience to buzz off (using more colorful language, however). Along similar lines, Bourdain’s in a kitchen while explaining collateralized debt obligations (CDOs). While in a Vegas casino, Gomez and Thaler tag team on the explanation of the gambling nature of synthetic CDOs.

The Big Collapse

Those cameos are a hard cut by design. They’re not given over to the smoothest of segues; the cameos are done by celebrities playing themselves and they speak directly to the audience.

McKay takes a creative risk with this approach and it works really well.

Ideally, lessons would be learned from this type of economic disaster. But, of course, it’s not an ideal world.

Players will be players. Profits drive decisions. And risk-takers, at least while the risks pay off, reap the rewards.

Take it as a cautionary tale, one told with considerable smarts and wit. The Big Short is a great example of Hollywood putting a spotlight on recent unsavory events and making it palatable. It’s the kind of movie that could play well in college financial classes, much like All the President’s Men has its place in J-schools.