The Critic: Michael Lewis’s The Big Short comes to a mul­ti­plex near you

How The Big Short Hol­ly­wood-ized the fi­nan­cial col­lapse. (Hint: It in­volves a bub­ble bath.) By Claire Sud­dath

Bloomberg Businessweek (North America) - - Contents -

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 Lipp­man 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 twohour 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. <BW>




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