The brilliance of The Big Short is that it doesn’t even pretend to be a story about good guys.

Four market experts – brought to life by Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell and Brad Pitt – glean the volatility of the soon-to-be 2008 subprime mortgage crisis. Each decides to bet against the market in an effort to secure a hefty pay-packet after everything comes crashing down. When one of the main characters tells another that “they (the banks) got greedy, and I can profit off their stupidity,” the platitude perfectly sets the tone for the film. Like thematic predecessors such as Wall Street, The Big Short is all about greed and making money. The audience can easily get caught up in the characters’ collective drive to prevail, which both sadly and exquisitely mirrors the many hapless mortgage-brokers portrayed in The Big Short whom we are told to detest.

A fairly typical Hollywood indictment on all involved, the film is so cleverly executed that it manages to be a story where you root for its central characters’ success, in spite of the knowledge that they are part of the very fraught system that the film bemoans. A reflective and consistently entertaining treatise on the crisis, The Big Short is most interesting in the ways that it renders the intricate subject matter accessible. The normalcy of an early scene featuring two characters discovering crucial material in a lobby is shattered when one breaks the fourth-wall – a regular device throughout the film – and tells us that what we saw was a lie, just a convenient plot device to explain things more clearly.

Likewise, the characters do not shy away from discussing the complexities of the financial crisis ala Margin Call, which will please devotees in the field who appreciate more than simplistic explanations of the issues. Again, the fourth wall is broken in decisive and surprisingly expository ways, with celebrity chef, Anthony Bourdain, for instance, creating a meal and talking explanatory finance direct to camera, and Margot Robbie doing the same in a bathtub. These sequences aren’t trite or overused, and while not achieving the deliberately incongruous tone set by The Wolf Of Wall Street, as apparently intended, it does the trick, conveying more complex concepts than those featured in the likes of 99 Homes or Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.

The film, while excellent, does err in a few respects, most notably in Pitt’s casting. Inundated with analysts obsessed with making money off the ensuing crash, Pitt’s character, despite his complicity, appears to be the only one whose moral compass is fixed throughout. It’s not the only film where he has served as producer and cast himself, and as with 12 Years A Slave, Pitt plays an upstanding individual whose actions and morality contrast with all of the other characters. In The Big Short, this is not only more pronounced, but is also a distracting, inconsistent thread of the narrative. But despite its flaws, The Big Short is both an accomplished intellectual exercise and an accessible drama that will play well to a range of audiences. A refreshing and piercingly clever morality tale – whether you prefer the emotive, simplistic or in-depth depictions of what happened – the film hits its target.

Glen Falkenstein on FilmInk