You Really Ought to See The Big Short

"Hey, weren't you in Crazy, Stupid, Love?'

“Hey, weren’t you in Crazy, Stupid, Love?’

It’s not very often that we talk about movies here at Civic Skunk Works, but this is a special occasion. Over the holiday break, I caught up on my awards-season movie-watching (Star Wars is fun, Carol is awesome, I was disappointed with The Hateful Eight) and The Big Short was my favorite movie of the lot. It was incredibly fun to watch—funny, inventive, well-acted, and directed with a simmering sense of anger by Anchorman director Adam McKay. You should definitely watch it. And yes, the movie is based on Michael Lewis’s book with the same title, and yes the book is better than the movie and you should read it. But the movie is entertaining and educational in its own right; I think people who’ve read the book would find a lot to enjoy in the movie.

The Big Short, if you didn’t know, is the true story of a small group of investors who decided to bet on the housing bubble bursting. (Spoiler alert for anybody who was in a coma in 2008: the housing bubble did, eventually burst.) The movie ingeniously makes the characters—played by Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, Christian Bale, and others—so dorky and likable that you’re actively rooting for them, which means at various points during the movie you realize that you’re hoping for the economy to collapse. The moral ambiguity of the whole thing is difficult to wrap your head around—the investors are horrified that the housing bubble is built on lies and deception and ignorance, but they’re also hoping to profit off of it—and that mixture of outrage and guilt creates a nice narrative drive that makes the movie a pleasure to watch. Don’t just take my word for it—even Bloomberg‘s Barry Ritholz, who wrote an excellent book about the economic downturn, says the movie “gets the broad strokes of the crisis correct.”

The best part of The Big Short is that it educates while it entertains. It trains the viewer to understand that all the technical jargon you hear from the so-called “experts” is a smokescreen, a trick to convince you that they know something you don’t. This is a vital lesson that more people need to learn, because it’s how conservative economists (and economist-adjacent bloggers) manage to trick the general public into thinking that, say, when you raise the minimum wage you’ll get a barren restaurant-free hellhole rather than one of the most vibrant restaurant cities in the nation. So much of the housing bubble can be applied to the conservative trickle-down scam that after watching The Big Short, you’ll watch a Republican debate, say, and wonder why everyone else can’t see through the copious amounts of bullshit flying around onstage. It will train you to be a smarter consumer of economic information—not a bad feat for a movie directed and written by the guy who brought you Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.

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Paul Constant
Paul Constant has written about politics, books, and film for Newsweek, The Progressive, the Utne Reader, and alternative weeklies around the country.