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How ‘The Big Short’ Puts a Comic Spin on Harsh Economic Story

Over the past two weeks I have seen movies dealing with brain injury, child molestation, the Hollywood blacklist, the Bolivian elections and a “doomsday machine.”

Little wonder some bankers think of Hollywood itself as a doomsday machine, albeit one that’s taking some interesting chances lately. A case in point: Adam McKay, a veteran jokesmith, who’s turned Michael Lewis’ best-seller on the 2008 financial collapse into “The Big Short,” a superbly eccentric film that wallows in the intricate details of Wall Street chicanery. The movie is both funny and fascinating. But it requires audiences to assume an understanding (albeit temporarily) of such things as collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and credit default swaps, which are central to the story.

Based on Lewis’ “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine,” McKay’s film introduces a dizzying array of cinematic stunts and narrative tricks to explain the intrigues behind the Big Bust. This entails stopping his film periodically so that narrators, or girls in hot tubs, can explain the tactical subtext. Even Mark Twain epigrams are invoked.

How did McKay find investors who were reckless enough to finance a movie about reckless financing?

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Rights to the Michael Lewis book were originally acquired by Plan B, whose principal, Brad Pitt, liked its message and its disarrayed cast of characters. His enthusiasm was soon shared by Christian Bale, Adam Gosling and Steve Carell, who all star in the film (as does Pitt). Given this impetus, producers lined up, with backing ultimately provided as well by Paramount and Regency Enterprises’ Arnon Milchan (himself a renowned financial mysterioso).

Despite the complexity of “The Big Short” (or perhaps because of it), McKay feels his $30 million picture, which opens Dec. 23, will strike a chord with filmgoers in the U.S. and abroad. “When it comes to economics, there is a giant gap between the people and their leaders,” he observes. “And politics is mostly about money.”

A one-time writer for “Saturday Night Live,” McKay never suspected to find himself steeped in economic expertise. His trademark has been outrageous comedy like “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.” A comic-book buff, he even wrote the script for “Ant-Man.”

“How did McKay find investors who were reckless enough to finance a movie about reckless financing?”
@mrpeterbart

Some of the characters in “The Big Short” take on the traits of superheroes by measure of their daring. Though varied in background, they share one obsession: that the real estate bubble and the financial apparatus surrounding it will suddenly explode, despite assurances from regulators. Hence, they basically decide to go “short” on the entire
U.S. economy.

Among the gamblers: a twitchy neurologist played by Bale, an antisocial hedge fund manager (Carell) and a grim-faced renegade investor (Pitt). No one in their right mind would bet on this motley crew. But their insight was correct. The market had gone crazy. They ultimately came away with payoffs in the billions of dollars.

McKay’s film makes it clear that the Big Bust could happen again. The machinery of regulation is wobbly at best. And there are enormous incentives for Wall Street to again construct esoteric mechanisms to exploit the systemic weaknesses.

After all, who would not want to arm himself with some hot new CDOs as he settles into his seat at the theater?

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