How do you make the financial crisis compelling? The challenge has largely defeated filmmakers. They’ve tried the personal tragedy (99 Homes), the documentary (Inside Job) and the ultra-serious recreation (Margin Call) — and while all had their strengths, they barely touched audiences not already interested in the disaster. But Adam McKay may have a better approach, by emphasising not just the criminality of the system but also its absurdity.
From the off, McKay bends over backwards to make this digestible. Ryan Gosling’s breezy, arch narration casually ignores the fourth wall, and the cast is packed with charismatic superstars. Christian Bale is Michael Burry MD, the antisocial hedge fund manager who first sees the rot at the heart of the mortgage derivatives market. Soon Steve Carell’s furious Mark Baum and his team take interest, partnering up with Gosling’s wheeler-dealing Jared Vennett. They’re followed by novice investors Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro) — who are in turn guided by Brad Pitt’s eccentric Ben Rickert. The film swings fluidly between these three main groups, never pausing enough to drag.
To dissect the more technical aspects of the crash, McKay cuts to silly little skits with yet more big names. Margot Robbie, in a bubble bath, explains derivatives, while Anthony Bourdain cooks up a storm that parallels the bankers cooking the books. It still can’t make everything simple — these financial models were designed to be impenetrable — but the tongue-in-cheek approach offers a strong beginner’s guide. McKay also never loses sight of the fact that financiers are socially maladroit nerds who only think they’re masters of the universe, “like someone burst a piñata full of white guys who are bad at golf”, as one character puts it.
There’s an obvious limitation in the fact that the film’s protagonists are part of the system; even as they see the crash coming, their aim is to cash in rather than prevent it. But compared to the reckless, grasping men who wrecked all our finances, they seem paragons of honour and probity — especially when their brilliant schemes become weights around their necks as the system stumbles on.
Though occasionally scrappy and arguably over-long, this is the best film yet to tackle the biggest financial disaster since 1929. It informs and outrages us without resorting to Michael Moore-style haranguing, and if it can just find a mass audience, could finally inspire some change.