Skip to main content

"The Big Short" Is Wall Street's Answer To Star Wars

The movie is quite possibly the most effective piece of anti-Wall Street propaganda ever made.

If Wall Street were a galaxy far, far away and the mortgage crisis was the first battle in its Star Wars, then Lewis Ranieri would be the evil emperor, Angelo Mozilo would be Darth Subprime, and hedge fund managers would skulk around like morally-ambiguous Jedis leveraging against the dark side in hopes of a huge score.

That's "The Big Short" in a cynically basic nutshell.

Adam McKay's new film is quite possibly the most effective piece of anti-Wall Street propaganda ever made. "The Big Short" is what Oliver Stone could have made had he been gifted the backdrop of a legitimate financial crisis, or a sense of humor. It manages to both humanize and revile the people that make up the financial sector all at once, making even the most anti-capitalist of audience root for fund managers trading against the well-being of everyday Americans.

And it will have a lot of people calling their brokers to say some sh!t.

Although there is no cut-and-dry protagonist in "The Big Short," the audience's guide is a fictionalized version of former Deutsche Bank trader Greg Lippmann, cannily played by Ryan Gosling as a charmingly self-aware, yet quite total, asshole. Gosling's trader character breaks the fourth wall constantly with acknowledgments that the behavior exhibited by himself and other characters is just beyond unforgivable. The character helps the audience understand how the crisis came to be by using celebrities to describe what MBSs, CDOs and credit default swaps are, and he is also the one that starts trying to sell swaps to hedge fund managers.

The Wall Street "hero" of the "The Big Short" might be (it's hard to say with certainty that there are any heroes) a fictionalized version of Steve Eisman embodied with angry moralism by Steve Carell. He bites on the Lippmann trade after a very affecting sequence that takes Eisman and his employees down to Florida where they see the mortgage bubble brought to life by a doomed middle-class family, an over-leveraged stripper and a pair of cosmically douchey mortgage brokers who McKay uses as a bathos-drenched reference to Countrywide.

While "The Big Short" is unclear on heroes, it is rife with villains. An evil CDO manager bragging about his close relationship with Merrill over a Las Vegas sushi dinner with Eisman, a literally vision-impaired S&P executive (heavy-handed but usably funny) and most of all, the economic ghost of Lewis Ranieri.

The movie is based on a Michael Lewis book so it's no surprise that the script would have some character assassination of the man that invented morgtage backed securities at Salomon Brothers, but "The Big Short" takes pains to show that Ranieri was the human hell mouth from which the financial crisis was sprung.

Gosling's Lippmann character narrates a short reenactment at the very top of the film in which a fat, bearded actor playing Ranieri spills some food on his shirt, rubs the stain into a larger smudge and then yells out "Let's make some money" to a very old and gross trading floor. The voice-over then describes Ranieri's creation as "A monstrosity that collapsed the world’s economy."

Towards the end of the film, Carell's Eisman character debates legendary bull investor Bill Miller in a somewhat preposterous set-piece that has them arguing about the strength of Bear Stearns stock while the suits watching them are simultaneously observing Bear' stock plunging towards zero on their Blackberries. Eisman then literally invokes Ranieri's name in a Hollywood speech that pretty much pins the downfall of the U.S. housing market on that greedy beardo slob from the first reel.

That kind of subtlety crops up over and over again, with many characters bragging about their insipid selfishness and joyfully staring down the looming crisis. Even when the "better" characters do something "good" they mange to get in shots along the lines of "That's pretty f@cking immoral, even for Wall Street."

But for those that love Wall Street, what will be most terrifying about "The Big Short" is that it works so well.

Even though the audience roots for the Lippmann and Eisman characters (along with a duo of "garage band hedge fund managers" expertly used as ingenue types mentored by a priggish Wall Street refugee who is played sleepily by Brad Pitt) McKay is clear at the end of the film that even our heroes are rather sh!tty people who made millions betting against the livelihood of their fellow human beings.

When we last see Gosling's character, he is thumbing a $47 million bonus check earned by predicting the catastrophe. "I can feel your disgust," he says to the fourth wall. "It's palpable."

And it is.


Everyone Still Hates Wall Street And It's Totally Hollywood's Fault

Why are we still waiting for Adam Sandler to play a lovably immature bond analyst?

Bank Of America Briefly Considered Unburdening Itself Of The Drunken Mistake That Was Countrywide

And then decided that sticking with the "worst deal in the history of American finance," which has cost it $40 billion in cleanup so far, made them at least look like responsible adults, facing the consequences of their actions, rather than deadbeats trying to take the easy way out. Long before Sanford Weill suggested last week that big banks should split up, Bank of America executives and directors considered the idea and then decided against it, said people close to the nation's second-biggest bank by assets...Chief Executive Brian Moynihan and his team looked at a possible bankruptcy of Countrywide Financial Corp., the troubled mortgage operation it purchased in 2008. Management also studied whether it made sense to break off Merrill Lynch, the securities firm it purchased in 2009. Mr. Moynihan ultimately recommended to his board that neither action made sense. The company decided Merrill had become too big of a profit center and splitting it off could expose the brokerage firm to the sort of funding problems that killed off other Wall Street firms in 2008. Meanwhile, it felt bankruptcy of Countrywide might invite more legal and reputational troubles for Bank of America while exposing other subsidiaries to problems. Bank Breakups, Not So Fast [WSJ]


Hillary's Wall Street War Chest Is Making Trump Say The Damndest Things

Trump is way behind in the money race and he is not taking it well.

Press: Wall Street's Only Real Friend To Announce Presidential Candidacy on Sunday

Hillary's in, and Wall Street should be rejoicing... but like with whispers instead of yelling.

Business Insider To Wall Street Interns: Stay The F*ck Out Of The Hamptons, Bro

If there is one piece of advice to follow about how to land a job on Wall Street this summer... you might as well follow this one, cuz why not.

Are You A Financial Services Company Stuffed To Gills With Toxic Assets And/Or On The Verge Of Bankruptcy? Don't Hold Your Breath For Brian Moynihan's Call

Time was, Bank of America loved buying companies. Bonus points if there was a not-so-subtle suggestion by the target's CEO that BofA would one day be very sorry for doing so, or that they would've been better off picking up an asbestos manufacturer, or that they were looking at roughly $40 billion (and counting) in legal fees associated with fuck-ups that were to become Bank of America's problem, or that they would have night terrors for the rest of their lives about signing those papers. As it's been a while since BofA went shopping, some in the financial services industry have been wondering if we can expect any announcements re: big deals anytime soon or if Ken Lewis's unsolicited suggestions (Groupon, Sino Forest, The Thirsty Beaver, and most recently: "a P&C insurer with outsized exposure to the Northeast") are or have ever been under consideration? Sadly for fans of the Lewis Era/style of doing business, not so much. Mr. Moynihan said in response to an audience question [at the bank's two-day investor presentation conference for financial companies at the Plaza hotel] that the bank has "no acquisition plan at all." BofA's Moynihan Says Fiscal Cliff Impact Already Happening [WSJ]