Max: “That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard, and I’ve heard Dave try to explain the housing crash.”
Dave: “Guys, it, it was—they took loans, and they repackaged them—subprime—and, it’s a numbers game…”
—Happy Endings, S2E4
When Michael Lewis was 28, he published a book called Liar’s Poker about the three years he spent working at the now-defunct Salomon Brothers on Wall Street. While there, he’d become thoroughly disillusioned by the financial system, viewing it not so much as a deathtrap as a kind of unsustainable con game run by know-nothings who were either too dumb or venal to appreciate the role they were playing in engineering regular cycles of economic and social collapse. Of that book, Lewis later wrote, “Unless some insider got all of this down on paper, I figured, no future human would believe that it had happened. … Somehow that message was lost. Six months after Liar’s Poker was published, I was knee-deep in letters from students at Ohio State University who wanted to know if I had any other secrets to share about Wall Street. They’d read my book as a how-to manual.”
In life, these things are as regular as clockwork. A story of someone’s tragic downfall will also, invariably, challenge a listener to believe that they could do it better, that they could avoid what took down those who came before them and find success where so many others had met with nothing but failure. That was the whole premise of Lewis’s 2010 book, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine. He wasn’t chronicling something new, but the persistent habits of people on Wall Street to always return to something old, i.e., their unquenchable desire to make ever-greater sums of money despite having no real skills. On the page, he did this with his trademark Lewis style of direct, plain language that walked the reader through the 2008 U.S. financial crisis and the events leading up to it.
Turning this into a film is a challenge, though, precisely because of the sheer amount of information that Lewis had to explain and connect for the reader. This is the heart of the success of the film version of The Big Short, directed by Adam McKay and with a screenplay credited to McKay and Charles Randolph: they use the same kind of asides, tangents, and “let’s take a moment to explain this” discourses that Lewis can use in prose and decorate them with humor and guest stars. It’s the same approach to puncturing the fourth-wall, using something eye-catching to keep the reader/viewer engaged, and as a result, The Big Short becomes one of the most entertaining movies that’s been made about a topic that most people will never even hope to fully understand.
I’m not even going to bother trying to explain what happens in any real detail. I would sound like some cross between a drunk clown and a child trying to remember a story he heard at school. The gist, though, is that the film follows several groups of white men as they each figure out that the U.S. financial system has been built on a house of cards that’s due to come tumbling down sometime in the first decade of the 21st century. Some of these men are charismatic but weird, like Michael Burry (Christian Bale), who operates a hedge fund and sees the whole thing coming. Some are just weirdly charismatic, like Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), a salesman at Deutsche Bank who profits from sales of products he knows are bad. There’s another hedge fund manager, Mark Baum (Steve Carell), who works with Vennett to profit in a similar fashion.
What makes these and all the other plots come together so well, though, is the fizzy joy that McKay brings to the table through the asides, like when Margot Robbie appears in a bubble bath, champagne in hand, to explain what “subprime” means. McKay (via Lewis) knows that this stuff is hard to understand and often very boring, so he effectively turns into the skid not by attempting to make this stuff sexy but by admitting that it’s very boring, and that its boringness is part of why these thieves were able to keep it hidden for so long. Because here’s the thing: These guys get away with it. This isn’t a movie about the crash per se, but about the group of people who anticipated the crash and got one last good screw out of the system before it collapsed.
The Big Short isn’t a comedy, but it’s not exactly a drama, either; more like an open-eyed examination of the absurdity of the U.S. economy, which lends itself to a certain dry humor. It was McKay’s first “serious” movie, too, as well as the first movie he’d made that didn’t star Will Ferrell. (McKay directed Ferrell in Anchorman and its sequel, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, and The Other Guys before helming The Big Short.) Its success is what inspired him to next direct Vice, starring Bale as Dick Cheney in a more easily delineated satire, but that film lacked the core throughline of Lewis’s thoughtful explanations, which McKay deftly paired with just the right touch to make a compelling movie.
It’s appropriate, too, that this is a film where nobody really learns anything. The guys who make out like bandits aren’t exactly shaken to the core by what happens; there’s no title card at the end announcing that they give it all up to volunteer for Greenpeace. The “winners” here are people who saw the cracks in the system and figured out how to profit from it before the alarm bell started to ring. This, again, is a perfect reflection of Lewis’s understanding of the endless cycle of greed that’s perpetuated this system and so many others before it. It calls to mind how, in 1973, director Francois Truffaut said that “every film about war ends up being pro-war,” simply because the act itself is so primal, so compelling, so inherently watchable in some sense, that any filmed depiction of its horrors winds up becoming, perversely, an advertisement for its beauty. The Big Short is a story about how suckers got rich, then how smart guys got even richer. It might, for a moment, even lull you into thinking that you could do it, too. There’s the rub.