How 'The Big Short' Plays Off of Viewers' Cluelessness About Banking

Imagine a film that delves into the underlying causes of the 2007–2009 financial collapse, looking at the housing market bubble, high-risk loans and egregiously arrogant banking institutions.

Sounds great—for an economics professor or financial policy wonk. Hardly fodder for the holiday movie rush, which is what makes The Big Short such a coup: Adam McKay's heavily-stylized drama glides along on an almost insatiable drive to make the insular vocabulary of banking funny, sexy or both.

McKay is better known for his work with Will Ferrell, co-writing frat-friendly comedies like Anchorman and Step Brothers, than he is for directing Oscar-tempting dramas, but he brings an appealing comedic energy to what could have been a dry telling.

It helps to have Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale and Brad Pitt rounding out the cast. Drawing on Michael Lewis's nonfiction book of the same name, the quartet play four separate but connected figures in the financial world who predicted the collapse several years ahead of schedule. Using the credit default swap market, they devised plots to profit—enormously—by betting against the housing market. Carell, looking frumpier than usual in a blond hairpiece, is winningly misanthropic as the trader Mark Baum (based on real-life manager Steve Eisman). Pitt, embracing his over-50 card, is compelling as a wizened and reclusive ex-banker who hates the big banks so much he helps a more youthful pair of investors exploit their failure. Never with much glee, though: "Every 1 percent unemployment goes up, 40,000 people die," he scolds the duo. "Did you know that?"

Occasionally the script veers off into stunt territory. When it does, though, it's in the service of education as much as it is laughs: McKay at one point summons Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to spell out the concept of subprime mortgage bonds for filmgoers (a cheeky nod to her Wolf of Wall Street turn). Later, Selena Gomez—also playing herself—is cast in an extended blackjack-game metaphor for "Synthetic Collateralized Debt Obligations." That's not to mention the precarious Jenga tower constructed by Gosling's character to represent faulty securities constructed out of loans that are unlikely to be repaid. Of course we know that tower is going to crumble. The challenge of The Big Short is conveying how these guys knew as much in 2006.

"Michael [Lewis] never thought his book could be turned into a movie because of all the esoteric descriptions of financial instruments," McKay revealed in a recent interview. "I figured I needed to explain this terminology in the most clever, apropos way I could."

A lesser adaptation might have submerged viewers in a sea of high-finance jargon and let them try to swim out—or just assume the movie is smarter than they are. But that's how the industry itself works. Bankers don't use inscrutable jargon because they're so much smarter than you, Gosling (as investor wiz Jared Vennett) explains in the film's voiceover. They use jargon because they want to keep you in the dark.

Gosling's narration proves The Big Short's best explanatory tool, not just because it elucidates the vocabulary, but because it emphasizes just how corrupt and short-sighted this vocabulary of greed is. Gosling frequently breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly. He's not just a guide to the big kids bankers' table.

Occasionally, he seems to be confirming or fact-checking his own movie as it unfolds. ("This is a true story," the movie's poster promises, after all.)

"That really happened in Las Vegas," Gosling smugly jumps in during one of the film's best moments, with Baum challenging a Wall Street bigwig at a banking conference. "Now you see what I had to deal with." When the two young investors (John Magaro, Finn Wittrock) learn of Vennett's plan in the lobby of Morgan Chase as they're being kicked out of the building, Gosling cuts in with a concession: "OK, so that's not really how it happened."

It's a little bit like watching a documentary at home and pausing it constantly to look things up on Wikipedia, except The Big Short's script anticipates your search queries and pauses the narrative to answer them for you. It's a uniquely 2015 way to tell a uniquely 2008 story. With its absurdist approach, The Big Short is a fascinating roadmap to a predatory and confounding industry that thrives on keeping Americans confounded.