Mortgage-backed securities, synthetic CDO's, credit- default swaps: Thinking about the 2008 financial collapse can make your brain hurt. That's one reason the banks were able to pull one over on America: the concepts and terminology they created were designed for maximum verbal abstruseness, meant to be interpreted by "experts."
Great storytelling, of course, is the enemy of the abstruse. Michael Lewis' 2011 nonfiction book The Big Short helped clarify things by focusing on the group of outsiders who saw the housing collapse coming and bet against the mortgage market. Now it's Adam McKay's turn. The writer/director behind such comedies as Anchorman, Stepbrothers and Talladega Nights has turned The Big Short into a lucid crazy quilt of explanations, pop culture images and fourth-wall obliteration.
It's a wild, funny ride with a very sad destination.
"There's a comedy thriller element to it," McKay says by phone. "And then all of a sudden it becomes full-on tragedy."
As Lewis writes in a recent Vanity Fair essay, "My job, as I saw it, was to make the reader badly want to know about credit-default swaps and collateralized debt obligations." His solution lay largely in his cast of characters, an unherdable assortment of financial black sheep who saw the sky falling and sought to profit from the aftermath.
McKay lured a team of A-listers to play The Big Short's profits of doom. There's Christian Bale as eccentric hedge fund manager Michael Burry, a social misfit who passes his time drumming along to death metal tracks. Steve Carell plays Mark Baum, based on the money manager Steve Eisman, a cantankerous train wreck who grows sick with shame as he realizes the extent of the collapse. Ryan Gosling is a slick trader for Deutsche Bank who narrates the film (often talking directly to the audience), and Brad Pitt is an ex-banker who helps out a couple of mom-and-pop investors in their shorting endeavors.
But it's the absurdist cameo appearances that most define The Big Short's tone. McKay enlists blonde beauty Margot Robbie to explain mortgage bonds - from a bubble bath. Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain shows up to compare collateralized debt obligations (CDO's) to a slapdash fish stew. Grand Prairie's Selena Gomez stands at a blackjack table and likens synthetic CDO's to placing a bet on the person who's placing a bet.
There's a method to McKay's madness. Much as he mixes in images of pop culture ephemera, from the Ludacris hit "Money Maker" to the rise of the iPhone, McKay enlists famous faces to represent where our minds so often drift - celebrity, gossip, entertainment - while important things are unfolding.
"Pop culture is what we were thinking about when this was going on, rather than the housing bubble," McKay says. "That's really where Margot Robbie and everybody came up, kind of just a riff on this pop culture that takes up so much of our mental space."
To be honest the details of the collapse can still be pretty confusing, especially to a mind not steeped in economic concepts. (Guilty as charged). I asked McKay to offer his best stripped-down layman's explanation of the mortgage crisis and economic collapse. Here's what he delivered:
"The banks thought of a great idea to make billions and billions more dollars on the mortgage-backed securities, and with all that money they got, they lobbied our government and ended up buying our government, and stripped out all the regulations. Essentially, the kid was running the candy store. And it collapsed. That would be my simple explanation."
And then, we tried to laugh to keep from crying.