The second-most irritating thing about The Big Short is how utterly facile it is. This adaptation of Michael Lewis's 2010 post-mortem of the 2007 collapse of the housing mortgage bubble that crashed the U.S. (and thence the world) economy, written by Adam McKay and Charles Randolph, and directed by McKay, functions first and above all as The Bro's Guide to the Great Recession, using slick editing, snarky cutaways, and a whole lot of whiz-bang humor as the spoonful of sugar to help the medicine of complicated stock market terminology go down easily. It's like watching a magic trick, only the magician keeps reminding us to stare at his hands: the style of The Big Short keeps jockeying for attention, every single time that the content gets too esoteric. The way-too-cool, don't-take-any-of-this-seriously tone eventually swallows the rest of the movie whole; it's so good at defanging itself through comedy that there's nothing left but smirking insincerity, and the impression that the filmmakers assumed their target audience is so little interested in the cancerous guts of out-of-control market capitalism that the only way to get them to watch it is to ironise it till all the meaning has been stripped away.

That is the second-most irritating thing. The most irritating thing is that the filmmakers, in making that assumption, were probably correct.

I'll concede this about The Big Short: it succeeds on its own terms. The events that led to the collapse were powerfully complicated, too complicated to be reduced to material that can be processed and enjoyed in the form of a mainstream satire targeting basically the same audience that McKay has previously engaged in his career as the director of the less-crappy Will Ferrell comedies (e.g. Talladega Nights, Step Brothers). But this is, I suppose, as good as any attempt at that end result would be apt to turn out. And it certainly is very proud to be a message movie. You perhaps recall the scene in The Wolf of Wall Street in which Leonardo DiCaprio's Jordan Belfort prepares to launch into some fourth wall-breaking arcana about stocks, before stopping himself to shrug and smirk that we probably don't want to hear all that. The Big Short assumes that, on the contrary, we just can't wait to hear all that, and it proceeds to tell us in at least some detail.

The plot of the film isn't really a "plot" at all, more of a free sprawl of events taking place in several lives that occasionally interact, so it beggars summary. But the individuals at play are Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a hedge fund manager who notices in 2005 that the U.S. housing market is propped up on subprime loans - in essence, loans which were extended to individuals with little or no chance of paying them back - and based on the terms of the earliest of those loans, the market is going to go to hell sometime in mid-2007. So he does something that, from the outside, looks insane: he bets all the money of his investors on the collapse of the housing market. By accident, Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) learns of Burry's actions, and investigating the numbers, he comes to the same conclusion.

It's through Vennett's actions that a pair of green young investors, Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) learn about the potential windfall, but lacking the practical knowledge of how to make money from the situation, they lure wizened old economics genius Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) out of retirement to help make the right trades. Most important of all, through sheer chance, professional doomsayer Mark Baum (Steve Carrell) learns of Vennett's actions, and teams up with the younger man, though he is the sole possessor of enough moral backbone to follow the money trail all the way back to the point where he discovers that effectively the entire U.S. economy is involved in betting that obviously weak loans won't default, thanks to the corruption of the ratings agencies whose function is nominally to point out that these loans are a terrible, terrible investment. And so does he discover that while he and the other ingenious conspirators are set to make a whole hell of a lot of money, they'll do so while the entire U.S. economy goes up in flames, and there's simply no way to stop it.

To express all the details of how that works, The Big Short uses a whole bunch of quick-hit gags, most often involving broken fourth walls: characters glancing up at the camera to clarify why they're doing the specific things they're doing, or at a handful of particularly challenging points, leaping out of the film entirely to let a celebrity guest star walk us through the necessary concepts in a non-diegetic setting. The first of these finds Margot Robbie soaking in a bubble bath as she lectures, and that scene is the nutshell version of The Big Short's entire project. It's ludicrously trivialising and obnoxiously bro-ey, and there's simply no way to pretend it's not; at the same time, it's an ingenious way of calling attention to how much the audience needs to pay attention, how difficult and how important these concepts are to get, and it's actually funny (the remaining celebrity cutaways don't work anywhere near as well, since by then the film's rhythm has become sufficiently regular that we an predict when they're coming).

The whole thing is wantonly inconsistent: the rules for who gets to break the fourth wall and when are frankly arbitrary, and the points where the film privileges flippant comedy over building its argument are all grating to me, There's a bit with an alligator in a back yard that lasts for all of five seconds, but perfectly encapsulates the "throw shit at a wall" nature of the whole affair - this is above all things an Adam McKay venture, filled with the same energy as his Ferrell movies and the general spirit of Funny or Die, and having never found any of those things more than mildly amusing and frequently enervating, I'm very much not the kind of person The Big Short is trying to impress. It's all very annoying, though for the most part the actors are able to keep it on track: Carrell's morbidity at being the Last Sane Man adds a genuine heartfulness that the film desperately needs, and the material with Magaro and Wittrock is virtually always interesting, insofar as they're really the only characters in the movie with anything like an arc, which the actors ride out well. Pitt's grimness cuts against the general buoyancy of the rest of the film effectively. Bale and Gosling are... present. And weirdly, they're the two members of the cast I generally admire most. But there's only so much you can do with a role that's entirely procedural.

As a work of cinema, the whole thing falls in a very take-it-or-leave-it-but probably-just-leave-it place for me; the only thing that nudges it over the hump is that, for all its shenanigans, this is really just the second narrative feature of any note that tries to grapple with what the fuck happened back in 2007 and 2008. The other one, 2011's Margin Call, is better in essentially every possible way, telling a clearer story with more interesting characters, better-articulated moral stakes, and incomparably tighter momentum (the difference between a ticking clock thriller and a loosey-goosey ensemble dramedy, no doubt). But The Big Short deals with more and harder material, and does it in a way that's legitimately coherent and easy to understand. I pray that this doesn't remain the best pop-economics explanation of what the fuck happened, but for right now, it's what we've got, and it really could be a whole lot worse.