A manic, contagious case of the jitters pervades “The Big Short,” Adam McKay’s alternately ingenious and gratuitously quirky portrait of the run-up to the 2008 financial collapse. Adapted from Michael Lewis’s book of the same name, this spin-art collage of genres and visual styles might look like a comedy from a director best known for his collaborations with Will Ferrell. But don’t believe the hype: For every moment of gallows humor, “The Big Short” is a sober-minded, profoundly angry piece of agit prop, as ham-handed in its outrage as in its attempts to couch its wordy economics lessons in slick vignettes and winking gimmicks.
“The Big Short” revolves around three sets of players: a money manager named Mark Baum (Steve Carell), a reclusive former banker named Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) and Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a visionary fund manager in California who in 2005 sees a housing market teetering on the brink of Depression-era foreclosure rates. Ignoring the objections of his investors, Burry decides to bet against the historically rock-solid mortgage bond market. When he travels to Wall Street to create a financial instrument to short the market, his strategy comes to the attention of Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), a spray-tanned, carefully permed trader who acts as “The Big Short’s” swaggering, clench-jawed narrator.
A madcap montage of expository speeches, hyperventilating meetings, revelatory encounters with corrupt brokers and their hapless marks, “The Big Short” feels less like an immersive story than a lecture delivered by the hippest Econ 101 professor on campus, illustrated with glib asides and state-of-the-art visual aids. Punctuated by occasional collages of snippets from Madison Avenue, MTV and McKay and Ferrell’s website Funny or Die (that’s McKay’s daughter, Pearl, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it clip), “The Big Short” will resort to anything to grab the audience’s attention, even if it means having a character deliver his lines while brushing his teeth, or stopping the movie dead in its tracks for a celebrity tutorial on subprime mortgages or debt repackaging.
That approach works until McKay’s control begins to slip: Unlike “The Wolf of Wall Street” (which is explicitly invoked in one of those celebrity cameos), “The Big Short” can’t exactly be accused of celebrating the greedy bro culture it’s indicting. But McKay can’t slow down long enough to let the information unfold naturally, by way of the story and organic design elements. “Moneyball,” another Lewis adaptation that Pitt produced and starred in, possessed its share of arcana, but that movie handled abstract factoids with far more grace and organic humor. Here, McKay takes viewers by the lapels and shakes them until they’re dizzied and dumbfounded, allowing the cinematic equivalent of look books and mood boards to do the narrative heavy lifting for him.
Shot by Barry Ackroyd with the shaky-cam lensing he made famous in the Jason Bourne movies and “The Hurt Locker,” “The Big Short” winds up being a woozily punch-drunk assault on the senses, which makes it all the more remarkable when the actors manage to deliver sharp performances amid the circling bluebirds. Gosling and Pitt are particularly impressive as two sides of the same Mephistophelian coin, and Carell plays Baum’s moralistic crusader with barking, wounded authenticity, although Baum’s teammates — played by Hamish Linklater, Rafe Spall and Jeremy Strong — are arguably more interesting.
Bale’s twitchy, stuttering portrayal of Burry might be the weakest point of a film that winds up collapsing Marx’s dictum to repeat recent history as tragedy and farce in one busy, bouncy ball. The effect is distracting, aggressive and, finally, psychically numbing. Upon leaving “The Big Short,” audiences are likely to feel less enlightened than bludgeoned with a blunt instrument, albeit one wrapped in layers of eye-catching silks and spangles: You may be too old to cry, but it hurts too much to laugh.
R. At area theaters. Contains pervasive profanity and some nudity and sexuality. 130 minutes.