'The Big Short' retells the mortgage crisis with lots of yuks

Like a really good punk-rock song, The Big Short is a triumph of snotty tone and fourth-wall breaking, right down the middle between sweet-tempered populism of a Michael Moore film and the smugness of Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street. Director Adam McKay (the Anchorman franchise, Step Brothers) makes grim farce out of the traders who made a mint betting on the financial collapse of ’08. It’s based on the book by Berkeley author Michael Lewis (Moneyball).

In this fictionalized telling, among the few who understood that AAA-rated mortgages were mixed with useless subprimes was the solitary Silicon Valley physician and founder of Scion Capital Michael Burry (Christian Bale). Clapping a pair of drumsticks (he likes to bash along with Metallica) and hanging his jaw in an imitation of a smile, this is a one-note performance by Bale.

The other traders include Mark Baum, a principled Manhattanite who is God’s angry man (Steve Carell in his most impressive movie acting yet); a guru who quit the Street in disgust (Brad Pitt); and Ryan Gosling as a young Wall Street turk, the most cynical of the characters. The lightness of tone counterpoints the landscape of financial horror and the insane exuberance of the market that turned bankers from dull, solid citizens into frothing gamblers.

The Big Short is short on women, though Melissa Leo and Marisa Tomei provide typically hard-edged supporting work. McKay ends with a new slant on the would-be Capra-style piece de resistance in a more strictly mainstream movie—Carell, giving a speech explaining the intrinsic problem at the heart of committing fraud, has an audience of distracted traders, checking their thrumming cell phones for news of the final swoon of Bear Stearns. In the end, 6 million houses were left vacant because of fiscal malfeasance.

‘The Big Short’ is playing in wide release in the North Bay.