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Just who’s getting shorted in ‘The Big Short’?

I’ll say this much for “The Big Short”: it’s a very entertaining movie. It is devilishly well-acted, especially by Christian Bale and Steve Carell, two actors on a roll in the past few years. It’s about the American – and eventual international – economic meltdown of 2008 and, despite the necessary obscurities, is surprisingly clear and cogent about the outrages that caused it.

Not that the tale is a cinch to tell, mind you. It’s not. The terminology and concepts of Wall Street make the cogitations of German metaphysicians seem like the simple sputterings and stutterings of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. No matter. In the movie’s main comic inspiration, director and co-writer Adam McKay and his partner call on an off-the-wall selection of celebrities to explain the more arcane concepts and terms to us – Selena Gomez, say, or beauteous Margot Robbie in a bubble bath who tells us that whenever we hear the phrase “subprime” to describe mortgages, we’re to think of the common street obscenity for ordure. Anthony Bourdain explains another Wall Street concept – Debt Obligation or DO’s – by showing us how a decidedly unscrupulous chef might pitch old and decidedly inedible fish parts into a pot and call it a “seafood stew” on the specials menu. (Remember that exposing such funky and yucky “confidential” kitchen practices is how Bourdain became a celebrity in the first place.)

So far, so good. Director and co-writer McKay has been Will Ferrell’s past partner in all manner of comedies and he’d probably be a dandy fellow to have with you whenever you needed to figure out some financial folderol that’s flying past you at rocket speed and evading comprehension. (How many car buyers wouldn’t be royally screwed by a dealership “closer” if that final tallying up by the dealership’s financial razzle-dazzler were stopped dead by Selena Gomez or Margot Robbie getting your undivided attention and explaining in simple English what all the slickery will cost you?)

It’s important for any candid critic to make sure you know how many critics are going around calling this baby one of the year’s best, particularly because of the streak of cheekiness and lunacy that takes the place of obscurity and nicely leavens a slowly bubbling stew of synthetic outrage.

There’s a problem here, it seems to me. It’s like “Moneyball” – another movie with Brad Pitt – based on a book by Michael Lewis. And Lewis seems to have one story he likes a lot. It’s the one about the wildly unorthodox people flouting convention and making monkeys out of the accepted experts and upper echelons of authority – all those baseball “experts” for instance whose old-fashioned instincts and experiences meant nothing compared to Billy Bean’s statistics in “Moneyball.”

So the story here – based on history – is about some wildly unconventional broker and financial types who didn’t give a fig that no one had ever doubted the investment soundness of the housing market before.

One such eccentric doubter is a barefoot, one-eyed M.D. who’s a bigshot investor who knows, just knows, that the subprime mortgage market is a ticking time bomb. He sells “short” as much as possible i.e. invests hugely against the solvency of the mortgage market and in so doing awakens a few more wildly unorthodox folks and forces them to take second and third looks.

In movie terms, then, you’ve got a deliciously nutty Christian Bale as the original doubting Thomas, Ryan Gosling as a sharpie who coldly “gets it” when no one else does (and hedges bets too) and in the movie’s most surprising turn, Steve Carell as a morose, angry moralist who reads the Talmud a lot and who takes it upon himself to investigate just how this subprime mortgage market works and gets rated by the “experts.”

What he discovers is a horror story of contemptuous and contemptible practices – exploitation, fraud, carelessness, a whole panoply of human malfeasance and vileness protecting a big chunk of the U.S. economy that is about to go belly-up the minute a few legalities take effect.

And now for some bad news which, quite frankly, I find bad news indeed for those touting this as one of 2015’s best movies.

It’s all about the self-deifying, success-hungry mavericks who are smarter than all the experts and authorities and all the rest of us dummies too and who are ready to gloat over their universal triumphs.

Think of Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” and what it wanted to tell us of the street’s reptile culture and the human monstrosities in its foreground.

What we’re watching in “The Big Short” is what we’re in effect rooting for – Brad Pitt, Steve Carell, Christian Bale and Ryan Gosling profiting in mind-boggling ways from our own economic cataclysm.

So that’s what the movie itself is in effect. It’s a very clever bit of “smartest guy in the room” razzle dazzle where McKay and his partners are performing the movie version of it.

These guys can sell the audience morally and dramatically short and profit with all sorts of money and smart aleck reviews. In the movie, some financial “smartest guys in the room” are making gibbons and orangutans out of experts and authorities (Federal Reserve chairmen and such) so that rebels, cynics and nutjobs can turn out to make billions.

Translate all that to movies and you’ve got “The Big Short.” It’s like an allegory of its own making.

To be sure, a certain amount of lip service is paid to the disaster in the offing – mostly through Pitt and and Carell. Carell is even portrayed as being a little – a little – outraged.

Never mind that real people lost homes and bank accounts and went bankrupt and turned into alcoholics and committed suicide and whatever else people do when their financial universe collapses on top of them and their loved ones, crushes them and refuses to move.

It’s all so that the movie version of “the smartest guys in the room” can be oh-so-clever about getting us to laugh and root against our own decency and best interests.

Smart. Really smart. Way up there in the cleverness sweepstakes.

All of which makes “The Big Short” an extremely entertaining and even memorable film in its way.

And if you ask me, also more than a little bit nauseating.


Movie Review

“The Big Short”

3 stars

Rated R for language, sexuality and nudity

Brad Pitt, Christian Bale, Steve Carell and Marisa Tomei in Adam McKay’s adaptation of Michael Lewis’ best-seller about those who foresaw 2008’s economic meltdown in advance and profited from it.

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