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‘The Big Short’: Jocular fun with collateralized debt obligations

Impossible.

Even with the benefit of 20-15 hindsight, it’s impossible to fathom exactly how the housing bubble of the 2000s was allowed to balloon to such gigantic proportions before exploding in such epic fashion.

Impossible.

On a much, much, much lesser scale of importance, even with the benefit of using Michael Lewis’ brilliant “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine” as blueprint, it’s impossible to fathom how writer-director Adam McKay has turned this material into one of the funniest and yet most sobering, not to mention one of the most entertaining movies of 2015.

What a feat by McKay, best known for subversive comedies such as “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights.” Directing with feverish ingenuity, as if he’d been told this is the last movie he’ll ever make, McKay pulls out all the tricks, from dizzying hand-held camera moves to having characters occasionally break the fourth wall to staging hilarious cameos in which celebrities playing themselves break down some of the most complicated “inside baseball” talk about the subprime mortgage crisis and collateralized debt obligations and mortgage-backed securities.

And it’s mostly a comedy. A devastatingly funny comedy.

McKay focuses on three oddball characters (all based on real-life individuals) who were among the very small handful who saw the collapse coming a mile away:

• Michael Burry (Christian Bale, who has the chiseled, crooked teeth of a vampire who just fought another vampire, and eyes that look in different directions), a medical doctor and social misfit with a glass eye, a propensity for wearing cargo shorts and blasting heavy metal in his office, and the inability to carry on a simple conversation with a fellow human being.

• Mark Baum (Steve Carell, sporting an alarming hairpiece), a loud and abrasive maverick who rails at the injustices of the world while heading a small hedge fund comprised of similarly cynical and pessimistic souls.

• Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling, with tightly permed hair and too-slick banker’s suits), who works at Deutsche Bank and is convinced his employers, along with Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns and JP Morgan Chase, et al., are acting in either astonishingly ignorant or criminally abusive fashion.

Perhaps a little of both.

Gosling’s Jared acts as the occasional narrator of the story — akin to Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill in “Goodfellas,” except Henry never said things like, “Does all this make you feel bored or stupid? Well, here’s [celebrity cameo to explain it in simple terms.]”

“The Big Short” mirrors the chaotic times it chronicles, continually introducing new characters as well as fresh, seemingly insane chunks of information. At one point Vennett plays a game of Jenga to explain “NINJA” loans, i.e., mortgages where the borrower had no obligation to supply verification of a steady income or assets of any kind. It’s a nifty set piece that serves to educate the other characters in the room, and all of us following along in the audience, our mouths slightly agape at this insanity.

At another juncture a nearly unrecognizable Brad Pitt shows up as Ben Rickert, a legendary financial guru who is out of the game, but is persuaded by two young traders (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock) to jump back in and guide them through the madness — because even though the two young guys are working out of their garage, they, too, see the crisis coming and they want to cash on it.

This is another tricky thing about “The Big Short.” The heroes, Baum and Vennett and Burry and their associates, are 100 percent sure the market is going to collapse, which means they’re betting a total of well over a billion dollars against the mortgage-based economy. If they’re right, millions of Americans will lose their homes. If they’re right, the result could ripple across the globe.

If you think of the warmest actor in the world, someone who always connects with the audience regardless of role — say, a Tom Hanks or a Julia Roberts — then Christian Bale would have to be at the polar opposite of the spectrum. He’s a great actor, but you never hear his persona described as “likable.” That serves Bale to great effect here, as he’s playing a genius who doesn’t know how to connect with the world around him.

Gosling is slick and smart and funny as Vennett. Carell, following up on his work in “Foxcatcher,” cements his reputation as a first rate serio-comic actor. Brad Pitt is so good as Rickert, I’d want to see an entire movie about that guy.

Some movies contain one or two scenes you always think about when you think about that movie. With “The Big Short,” there are a dozen such scenes. Have I told you about the Vegas dinner where Baum confronts an insufferably smug manager of CDO’s? Or the —

I could keep going, but I want you to save the pleasures of “The Big Short” for your own viewing experience. This film deserves a Best Picture nomination. It’s one of the best times I’ve had at the movies all year.

[s3r star=4/4]

Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Adam McKay and written by McKay and Charles Randolph, based on the book by Michael Lewis. Running time: 130 minutes. Rated R (for pervasive language and some sexuality/nudity). Opens Friday at local theaters.