It's been evident from the movies of Adam McKay since the 2008 housing collapse that the director has become obsessed with the excesses of the financial and corporate sector. The Other Guys lionized policemen that went after white-collar criminals. Anchorman 2, as much as it was a sequel to a popular film, was able to take its shots at corporate culture. And even Ant-Man, which McKay only had a hand in, gave the hero a backstory that has him being a victim of corporate malfeasance. The Big Short finds the director well in his element, crafting potent comedy and drama out of a situation that the average person wouldn't really be able to explain.
And explaining it is a big part of what this movie is. Part of the thesis of the film seems to be that the crisis isn't really that difficult to understand, but that the financial sector has buried the truth under tons of jargon. The truth, according to the movie, is that people were just being stupid. The film tells the story of the very few people who saw through that stupidity, and bet against the continued stability of the housing market. Among them: Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a socially awkward fund manager who predicted the collapse two years before it happened; Mark Baum (Steve Carrell), another fund manager with anger issues and a general mistrust of his own industry; and Jamie Shipley and Charlie Geller (Finn Wittrock and John Magaro), small time traders out of Boulder.
Part of this movie is just about explaining exactly what went on. The film tries to get it into terms that people will understand, and it frames them in sequences that people might actually pay attention to. To this end, the movie employs a handful of celebrity cameos in scenes that put the story on hold to provide a cogent, often analogy-heavy explanation of the more convoluted concepts involved. This really represents one of the film's central struggles: how to take something as arcane and boring as high finance and turn it into compelling cinema. The movie's answer largely lies in this kind of gimmicky.
And it is gimmicky that works. Had this been a more conventional narrative, it would've likely gotten bogged down in the minutiae of these deals. The film just breaks the fourth wall right from the start, and lets the audience know that they're in for a real lesson. A restless camera combined with jumpy editing prone to seemingly unrelated cutaways keeps things lively. Characters will at times address the camera directly. At one point, one of the characters admits that something that just happened isn't exactly how it took place in real life. To the film, the story is clearly less important than what it reveals about the world in which it took place.
Because the heroes aren't even really heroes. It is telling that the ostensible good guys in this story ended up profiting from the whole mess, reaping big payoffs as people lost their pensions and were thrown out of their homes. The film is keenly aware of the absurdity at the heart of the system, and it's really focused on bringing that to light. The protagonists are painfully human, prone to the kind of unreasonable behavior that in another movie would be much tougher to swallow. But that is the point, and fine acting from the cast, particularly Steve Carrell, makes the internal conflict feel terribly resonant.
The Big Short isn't the most nuanced film. It is angry and more than a little self-righteous. And one might feel a little uneasy or maybe suspicious about the utter lack of sympathy the film seems to have about certain sets of people. But this is ultimately what makes the film so compelling. This is a story that has been difficult to tell, with plenty of people still in the dark about what exactly happened. This film manages to turn all of it into entertaining comedy. It might be a little unfair in the end, but there might be merit to being unfair in this case. There are bigger things at stake, after all.