Burst­ing the bub­ble

THE BIG SHORT, drama, rated R, Vi­o­let Crown, 4 chiles

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This year’s best movies seem to be in­ves­tiga­tive pieces ripped from head­lines of fairly re­cent vin­tage. My choice for Best Movie of the Year has been Spot­light, Tom McCarthy’s grip­ping paean to in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism in The Bos­ton Globe’s un­mask­ing of pe­dophilia in the Catholic Church at the turn of the mil­len­nium.

Join­ing it at the top of the list is a re­mark­able movie from Adam McKay, a di­rec­tor mostly as­so­ci­ated with Will Fer­rell come­dies, the Satur­day Night Live writ­ing staff, and the com­edy video web­site Funny or Die. The Big Short takes him into new ter­ri­tory: a look at the rot un­der­ly­ing the 2008 near-col­lapse of the world fi­nan­cial sys­tem, trig­gered by the im­plo­sion of the sub­prime mort­gage mar­ket.

McKay’s movie is by turns funny, fright­en­ing, sus­pense­ful, in­for­ma­tive, and tragic. It looks at the im­pend­ing de­ba­cle from the per­spec­tives of four an­a­lysts, or teams, who had the vi­sion to rec­og­nize what no­body else saw com­ing: the rot­ten­ness of the sys­tem, the worth­less­ness of the pack­aged mort­gages on which the econ­omy was glid­ing, and the in­evitable dev­as­tat­ing crash when the bub­ble burst. They bet against the econ­omy. They bet big. And they won. Ev­ery one of the ac­tors as­sem­bled here is ter­rific. Chris­tian Bale plays Michael Burry, an ec­cen­tric money man­ager who took the trou­ble to read the con­tents of the worth­less mort­gage bun­dles and saw the writ­ing on the Wall Street wall. He’s the only player iden­ti­fied by his real name in the movie (Bale even wears Burry’s real clothes).

Brad Pitt (who also pro­duced) is Ben Rick­ert, a for­mer Chase an­a­lyst now out of the game who men­tors two young garage-based traders, Jamie Ship­ley (Finn Wit­trock) and Char­lie Geller ( John Ma­garo). Ryan Gosling is Jared Ven­nett, a banker who serves as the film’s oc­ca­sional nar­ra­tor and points out the rea­son why th­ese guys were able to see what no­body else could: “They looked.”

The heart and soul of this tale is Mark Baum, a hedge-fund man­ager with a con­science and a low boil­ing point for moral out­rage. He’s played by Steve Carell, who trades in his Fox­catcher pros­thetic nose for a bad hair­cut here, con­tin­u­ing to prove his chops as a se­ri­ous ac­tor.

That McKay (who adapted the story with Charles Ran­dolph from the best­selling book by Michael Lewis) was able to build a movie about the fi­nan­cial melt­down that cost so many peo­ple their homes and sav­ings, and make it en­ter­tain­ing and sus­pense­ful and even funny, is a re­mark­able achieve­ment. The movie is also in­struc­tive. Celebri­ties pop in to con­duct mini-sem­i­nars: singer Se­lena Gomez and econ­o­mist Richard H. Thaler ex­plain syn­thetic CDOs while play­ing black­jack at a Las Vegas ta­ble; chef An­thony Bour­dain likens the pu­trid mort­gage bonds to three-day-old hal­ibut in a fish stew.

In the end, the good guys are right and the Wall Street crooks and dupes are wrong, but there’s not much to cel­e­brate. Burry and the rest make their mil­lions, but the con­se­quences for av­er­age peo­ple are ter­ri­ble. “An atomic bomb of fraud and stu­pid­ity” is what Baum calls it. A few large firms get their come­up­pance, but only one poor fall guy goes to jail; the gov­ern­ment bails out in­sti­tu­tions that are too big to fail; and a lot of the peo­ple who built the sys­tem that Baum blasts as “a level of crim­i­nal­ity un­prece­dented even on Wall Street” wind up richer than ever.

With all the laughs, and there are plenty of them, the movie leaves us with this thought: Not much has changed, and it could hap­pen again. — Jonathan Richards

Hedg­ing his bets: Steve Carell

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