Look, I like Adam McKay. I quoted Anchorman as much as the next dumb 8th grader. But his movies were always banished to the ghetto of “guilty pleasure”: loose-scripted, goofy, throw-it-on-during-a-lull-in-the-party fun. So if I had intel that the director was about to follow up Anchorman 2 with a biting dramedy about the 2007 housing collapse, I would have happily shorted those box office returns. Assuming, of course, I had a clue how one goes about shorting something.
Despite McKay’s efforts (and about 30 episodes of Planet Money) I’m still hazy on how shorts actually work. But I do know my dividends would have been…non…remunerative? (Aaand bailing on the finance lingo.) The point is, The Big Short wound up being surprisingly great. Blending the breezy vibe of Oceans 11 with the cynical panache of Wolf of Wall Street, it’s a tight, fourth-wall-shattering ensemble piece that somehow manages to be playfully overacted, earnest, and restrained in the same breath. “Overacted” means Christian Bale as a barefoot savant who rants about CODs while his glass eye twitches to a Metallica bass line, and Steve Carrell as a fire-breathing investor with the populist idealism of Bernie Sanders and the grace of Donald Trump. “Earnest” means up-punching outrage; not just at the sleazy brokers, callous bankers, or spineless government employees, but at the Free Market echo chamber that rendered them inevitable. “Restrained” because the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and that echo chamber is a lot easier to mock than it is to fix.
The Big Short knows that as fun as it is to cheer for protagonists and the villain’s come-uppance, the truth is messier. Like a good Tarantino flick, it lulls us with the cadence of hero worship only to throw our hypocrisy in our face. We root for the “underdogs” who are rooting against the banks, but their windfall only comes from our tragedy. So when Wall Street burns and they’re the only ones fiddling, it’s hard to celebrate but harder to blame them — after all, I was intoxicated too, and I only had $12.50 on the line. It’s an absurd situation, bred by an absurd, deeply unintuitive system. And the only response to absurdity — be it “I love lamp” or the American economy — is to laugh.