How The Big Short Hollywood-ized the Financial Collapse

Hint: It involves a bubble bath.

The Big Short—based on Michael Lewis’s account of the 2008 financial crisis and directed by Will Ferrell’s writing partner, Adam McKay—is a ruthless takedown of Wall Street disguised as a snarky Hollywood romp. In the movie, a group of renegade brokers and traders bet against the housing market and make a killing while the rest of the finance world weeps. Fun! The way those renegades did it, however, presents a very big filmmaking problem: How do you dramatize a series of financial trades so convoluted, so abstruse, that even the people in on the deals didn’t always understand what was going on?

The answer: celebrity cameos and diagrams. Lots of them. To help the audience follow along, McKay periodically stops the action for brief financial tutorials. Sultry actress Margot Robbie defines subprime mortgages while sipping Champagne in a bubble bath. Anthony Bourdain shows up to compare the way banks packaged the bad mortgages into top-rated bonds to how a shifty cook might trick people into eating three-day-old fish by dumping it in a stew. Selena Gomez visits a Vegas casino with economist Richard Thaler to explain collateralized debt obligations. In one scene, a Deutsche Bank trader loosely based on the real-life Greg Lippmann and played by Ryan Gosling explains the housing market’s vulnerabilities using a game of Jenga.

Gosling stars alongside Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Marissa Tomei, and Brad Pitt (whose Plan B produced the movie). All those big names and pretty faces go a long way toward making financial instruments less boring. McKay clearly hopes his cast’s fame will help draw in the type of people who only watch things with superheroes or car chases—a two-hour cinematic lecture on how the economy collapsed may sound a little daunting, but, hey, Ryan Gosling’s in it! More important, the director knows a moviegoer will wrestle with hard truths if she can do it while laughing at their absurdity. There’s a reason Jon Stewart once tied with Tom Brokaw and Anderson Cooper in a Pew Research Center survey of the most trusted news anchors in America.

Unlike Martin Scorsese in 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street, to which The Big Short will undoubtedly be compared, McKay goes light on the flashy wealth and instead populates his Wall Street with a bunch of silly, greedy numbskulls. “How can the banks let this happen? That’s not stupidity, that’s fraud,” says Carell’s character, a Morgan Stanley hedge fund manager based on the real Steve Eisman. “Tell me the difference between stupid and illegal, and I’ll have my wife’s brother arrested,” Gosling retorts. Sure, The Big Short has a scene in a strip club, but it’s only because Carell’s character wants to talk to the strippers about how they financed their condos.

The director may have figured a way around the financial jargon, but he can’t do much about the movie’s other problem: It doesn’t have an ending. As Gosling reminds the audience—he literally turns to the camera and speaks to it—all of this really happened. Just a few years ago. And we’re still dealing with the aftermath. The characters’ names may have been changed, but they represent real people, many of whom still have jobs on Wall Street. And sure, the good guys win, but the bad guys—the banks that sold predatory mortgages to people who couldn’t afford them—they win, too. And if they both win, who loses? Take a guess.

(Corrects the spelling of Greg Lippmann's name in the second paragraph.)
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