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A Crash Course in Wall Street Greed, The Big Short Laughs to Keep From Crying

2015's most improbable success.

It’s hard to believe that a film about the 2008 financial crisis, in which much of the drama is driven by the bursting bubble of (try not to yawn) collateralized debt obligations, was ever greenlit. Or that this film, a cynical and intelligent critique of capitalism’s worst impulses, was helmed by the director of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. Or that it manages to take such dense subject matter and get laughs beyond the easy trick of putting bad hairdos on the heads of Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, and Brad Pitt.

The Big Short is the year’s most improbable success, a searing diatribe against Wall Street greed that manages to be terrifying, educational, and funny, often all at once.

It’s a tribute to the uniformly excellent ensemble cast that we sympathize with The Big Short’s protagonists, a poorly coiffed mix of socially inept hedge fund gurus and unlikeable traders whose moral compasses are (for the most part) only slightly more well-attuned than those of the big bankers they’re up against. When these motley Wall Street outsiders learn about the impending collapse of the housing market before anyone else, they begin hatching a scheme to profit from the coming chaos.

Director Adam McKay doesn’t gloss over the fact that we’re essentially rooting for a loosely connected group of already well-off people to make another buck while the rest of the world burns. The film runs the risk of ignoring those who were most hurt by the crisis — usually people who have no idea what a “collateralized debt obligation” is — but McKay takes great pains to show his heart is in the right place.

Admirably, The Big Short doesn’t shy away from the complicated financial issues that led to the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression. Fourth-wall-breaking cameos from Margot Robbie and Anthony Bourdain, among other celebrities, serve as helpful explainers for the most difficult topics, while punchy dialogue and a steady comedy-to-drama ratio keep the action moving along.

The film can be didactic, and its fury can feel impotent: We are reminded that only one top banker was imprisoned in connection with the fraudulent practices that led to the catastrophe of 2008. But it’s not untimely, although national outrage and awareness surrounding corrupt banking practices may have peaked and subsided after a bunch of well-intentioned protesters camped out in Zuccotti Park more than four years ago.

A little righteous indignation is always needed, even if there’s nothing we can do but laugh.

It beats weeping.