Subprimetime players

A rag-tag group of misfit brokers ride against the Wall Street tide

Starring Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt. Directed by Adam McKay. Cinemark 14. Rated R.
Rated 5.0

The Big Short rates very high among recent films that seek to give an honest and compelling account of devastating historical events in present-day society.

The subject in this case is the economic collapse of 2008, as seen from the vantage point of a handful of Wall Street misfits who foresee the collapse and are appalled and/or enraged by the official indifference to the carefully documented evidence of what will soon transpire.

Using Michael Lewis’ book on the subject as their central source, writer-director Adam McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph have fashioned a serio-comic drama that serves both as gnarly social satire and as a gonzo kind of morality play. And those misfit brokers are seemingly the rag-tag heroes of a semi-comic caper, but they too get their assorted moments of not-so-comic reckoning.

McKay and company do an effective job of presenting the specifics of subprime mortgages, the housing bubble, the delusional enthusiasm of bankers, brokers and the “clients” of both. But the real brilliance of The Big Short resides in the mixed sympathies of its main characters and in its sidelong evocations of a kind of collective insanity in the era of “too big to fail.”

The picture’s “misfit” brokers are played by Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt. Each has his own alienating flaws, but their respective deficiencies in social skills and groupthink have much to do with their determination to do battle against shamelessly predatory business practices.

Bale’s one-eyed eccentric is the best performance in the film, but the most richly developed character is Carell’s Mark Baum, a nervous wreck with a blazingly real conscience that makes him painfully unique in the world of The Big Short. Pitt’s Ben Rickert is profoundly alienated from the market scene, yet he returns to give two would-be protégés a chance to get rich off their own offbeat insights, and to learn a hard lesson or two.

The excellent supporting ensemble includes John Magaro and Finn Wittrock as the protégés, Marisa Tomei as Baum’s very attentive wife, and Melissa Leo, Karen Gillan, Hamish Linklater and Jeremy Strong as bankers and brokers. Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdain have comic cameos as themselves.