They include: socially awkward, savant-like numbers whizz Michael Burry MD (Christian Bale), who's the first to identify the imminent crisis and comes up with an effective method of betting against the housing market (or 'shorting' it, hence the title); smarmy investment banker – and the film's narrator – Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who quickly interprets the meaning of Burry's bizarre behaviour and persuades quick-tempered hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his team to set up similar bet-against-the-system deals; and independent, low-level investors Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro), who get wind of the same idea and realise that they don't have the clout to make deals with the big banks, so they enlist the aid of former banker-turned-New-Agey-financial guru Ben Rickert (a perfectly cast Brad Pitt) to get them a seat at the big tables.
A film about the financial crisis isn't the easiest of sells which might go some way to explaining the level of star power in the cast. Carell is particularly good as the perpetually angry hedge fund manager with a grudge against the system, while Bale is on typically fine form and is clearly enjoying himself with Burry's various character quirks, such as his frequently not-where-it's-supposed-to-be glass eye or his penchant for walking barefoot around the office.
A film about the financial crisis isn't the easiest of sells...
There's also strong support from Gosling, whose frequent fourth wall breaks as narrator serve to highlight the absurdity of the whole enterprise, as well as amusing appearances from the likes of Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez, who pop up in comedy inserts intended to explain some of the more complex financial jargon (“Here's Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to explain synthetic collateralized debt obligation”).
McKay's fluid direction, heightened by some Oscar-nominated editing maintains an effective balance of complex financial information and blackly comic story telling, resulting in both dark-tinged humour and a mounting sense of impotent rage as the crisis unfolds.
Here's Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to explain synthetic collateralized debt obligation
This is further complicated by the sudden realisation that the film's ostensible good guys are just as guilty as exploiting the innocent for financial gain as the banks themselves, something that's brought home nicely with a great final shot.
The Big Short is released in UK cinemas on Friday 22nd January.