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'The Big Short' (R)

The Big Short is an angry, fiery movie disguised as a comedy. Director Adam McKay (Anchorman, The Other Guys) has turned Michael Lewis’ dense bestseller about the 2008 economic collapse and the people who profited from it into a crackerjack comedy. The movie is paced like one of McKay’s Will Ferrell pictures, stuffed with cameos and filled with direct addresses to the audience that lay out some of the more complicated elements of the story. If you don’t know what a collateralized debt obligation is, you might have a better grasp on the concept after Anthony Bourdain explains it to you from his kitchen.

But there is so much information to process in The Big Short that only hedge fund managers and stock brokers will be able to track every nuance and shading of this complicated story. If you want a serious, thoughtful exploration of what happened, watch Charles Ferguson’s Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job. McKay keeps numerous plates spinning, worried about boring his audience, as he follows several characters (some based on real people, others composites) in the years leading up to the meltdown.

The one thing they all have in common: They got rich while everyone else got burned. You can’t blame people such as Michael Burry (Christian Bale), an eccentric genius with a glass eye and a touch of Asperger’s who pored through the mortgage-backed bonds that banks started using in the late 1970s to reap giant profits. Burry was the first to realize that in 2007, many of the people who had been given loans wouldn’t be able to afford their payments after the adjustable rates kicked in, and that a disastrous chain of foreclosures would ensue.

Burry was acting on behalf of his clients when he started shorting the banks’ loans, investing millions of dollars into credit swap defaults that required the housing market to collapse in order to generate a profit. Other investors, such as the oily shark Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) and the conscience-stricken Mark Baum (Steve Carell), took a different approach, deciding to make a profit for themselves even though they knew the apocalypse was looming.

McKay doesn’t judge any of his protagonists: He just tags along with them as they negotiate a field of credit-rating agencies, corporate conventions and immoral mortgage brokers who live high on the hog by granting loans to people who don’t even have a credit score. As a pair of young, self-made investors who literally stumble onto the opportunity of a lifetime, Finn Wittrock and John Magaro play up the humor of their characters, helping you overlook the fact that these guys got rich while countless people lost everything. As their mentor and advisor, Brad Pitt injects a note of crackpot gravity: He’s a serious, conscionable man who got out of the game years ago, but he’s willing to go back in briefly to help out his disciples.

Pitt does, however, remind them that what they are doing is nothing to brag about. The characters in The Big Short aren’t outright criminals, like Jordan Belfort was, nor are they saintly representations of ethical behavior. They are all men who got a peek at the breadth of the corruption lurking beneath the global economic infrastructure, realized it was doomed to fail and decided to make some money on it. Because who wouldn’t?

McKay is careful to include a scene in which two of the men try to get their reporter pal at the Wall Street Journal to break the story before the housing bubble burst. But the journalist declines, because he’s afraid of burning his sources. In The Big Short, everyone is complicit in one way or another, despite their level of indignation, and the film ends on an alarming note that points out how easily it could all happen again. If the movie wasn’t so funny, you’d leave the theater crying.

Cast: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Finn Wittrock, John Magaro, Rafe Spall, Jeremy Strong, Hamish Linklater, Adepero Oduye, Marisa Tomei, Melissa Leo.

Director: Adam McKay.

Screenwriters: Adam McKay, Charles Randolph. Based on the book by Michael Lewis.

A Paramount Pictures release. Running time: 130 minutes. Vulgar language, brief nudity, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.