In 2007, one year before the avarice of the banking industry spurred a devastating market collapse, director Adam McKay shocked the world with an unprecedented portrait of greed and corruption. In his potent 2-min. 21-sec. drama The Landlord, a wolf in Baby Gap clothing–played by McKay’s then toddler Pearl, terrifying in a ruffled blue pinafore–shakes down a distraught Will Ferrell for back rent she knows he can’t pay. Discomfiting as it is, The Landlord was just a run-up to The Big Short, McKay’s serrated true-life tragicomedy about four outlier investors who foresee the subprime-mortgage meltdown and cannily set out to short the housing market–only to realize, to their horror, that the system they’ve managed to game is so rotted through that millions of Americans will soon lose their homes and jobs.
Christian Bale plays Michael Burry, the one-eyed savant who, by scrutinizing reams of data, first spots hidden cracks in the housing market’s foundation. Steve Carell is renegade hedge-funder Mark Baum, who takes Burry’s research even further, uncovering sickening global ramifications. Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt show up as, respectively, a slick Wall Streeter with untrustworthy hair and a reclusive former banker with a penchant for organic produce and colonics.
McKay approaches this adaptation of Michael Lewis’ book with wit, energy and a surprising degree of clarity. But if the movie is a crackerjack entertainment, it’s one with a conscience. McKay invites us to laugh at the meltdown’s abundant absurdity but makes sure the bitterness of the joke lingers. Pearl the landlord even surfaces, briefly, in a greed-is-good montage. In retrospect, this tiny tyrant doesn’t seem like such a bad egg. We just didn’t know how good we had it.
This appears in the December 14, 2015 issue of TIME.