Equal parts goofy crime caper and cold-blooded rage against the machine that created the Global Financial Crisis, the newest film to explore the meltdown that exposed capitalism's great lie offers the most outrageous entertainment you've ever had in a movie theatre without understanding what's going on.
The GFC has had no shortage of film treatments, from lacerating documentary (Inside Job) to accomplished dramas both operatic (Margin Call; Arbitrage) and gritty (99 Homes). But McKay, a veteran of Saturday Night Live and comic collaborations with Will Ferrell, finds a bold and exciting new way in by making a disaster movie as an absurdist comedy.
If you haven't mastered the minutiae of credit default swaps and synthetic collateralised debt obligations, you're in the right place. As it happens, the film screeches to a halt from time to time to have characters or random imports (Selena Gomez at a roulette table; Margot Robbie in a bubble bath; Anthony Bourdain making fish stew) break the fourth wall and explain by analogy direct to camera.
But it doesn't matter if you don't get it; the film works the way the crooks did, by keeping everyone in the dark.
Adapted from Michael Lewis' 2010 bestseller The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, the film, which McKay co-wrote, takes a dizzying, adrenalin-fuelled approach to what is, in essence, a story of men sitting in rooms talking and looking at computer screens.
It hijacks the tropes of cartoon, music video montage and Instagram to lay bare a disaster that was as much moral and financial and, from the inside, must have looked like a slapstick comedy.
The human cost of the subprime swindle is not ignored, but the film is oddly weaker for its nodding references, which seem slightly dutiful. (The Carell character, a righteous would-be whistleblower, seems forced too, particularly given his final act.)
There's more than enough in the end titles to remind us to maintain the rage.
McKay's comedy background has helped him to distill the essence of the story into brilliantly archetypal characters, only one of whom bears his real-life name: Michael Burry (the dazzlingly protean Bale), a fund manager who goes barefoot and works while air-drumming to heavy metal at full volume.
A former neurologist with a glass eye, he sees the housing-market disaster coming and bets billions of his clients' money on it.
As his bet turns from foolhardy to disastrous and then triumphantly catastrophic, the full horror grabs us by the viscera and we are reminded that, as the regulators turned their backs, the biggest financial meltdown in history became very good news for the very few.
The film's most remarkable achievement is that it gets us rooting for these bastards even as we recoil in disgust from them. Even a reptilian trader (Gosling) exerts an eerie attractiveness.
It plays its polemical cards close to its chest until it lays them down, delivering an emotional punch as powerful as Once Were Warriors. It's an early call, but this film, cruelly ignored at the Golden Globes, bids to be one of the best of the year.
Movie: The Big Short
Cast: Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Marisa Tomei, Hamish Linklater, Rafe Spall, Jeremy Strong
Director: Adam McKay
Running time: 130 mins
Rating: M (offensive language, nudity)
Verdict: The GFC as adrenalin-fuelled slapstick with a knockout punch.