The Tragi-Comedy of “The Big Short”

Seeing the movie adaptation  of “The Big Short” last night transported me back to a decade ago, when I made a regular habit of leaving my road bike in the garage and hopping instead on my upright city bike to cruise my hometown. Cycling is much like walking in giving you slices of life and peeks into windows and garages to take a measure of Americana. The slices just go by faster.

I can distinctly remember the internal commentary going on in my mind at the time as I moseyed in leisurely fashion through typical middle class neighborhoods of well-appointed tract homes, of the three-and-four-bedroom variety, with double garages on relatively small lots. They were workers’ homes, “owned”—at least until the banks stated reclaiming them—by plumbers and teachers and shop owners and radiology techs. Homes that had sold for $200,000 at the turn of the millennium but were now at $500,000 and $600,000 and more (and seemingly ratcheting up in value every month).

Almost invariably, there were expensive toys all over the properties—shiny new trucks and boats and jet skis galore, the garages crammed with more toys to complement them.

And I remember thinking repeatedly about how none of the math added up here. Those mortgages, those truck and boat payments, the expenses for the multiple children racing around on scooters and skates, didn’t match against the prevailing salary ranges I knew a good portion of those residents labored within.

I’d go home to my family on these occasions and find myself repeating what became an all-too-famiilar refrain: “This can’t go on.”



Michael Lewis, author of the rollicking good read upon which the even more rollicking current movie is based, showed in glorious-but-dark detail why it couldn’t go on, why the whole financial edifice that allowed for legions of modestly compensated workers to claim immodestly priced homes and toys was built on the sleight-of-hand of imaginative Wall Street wizards.

…Selena Gomez at a card table in Las Vegas, jauntily explaining the house of cards on Wall Street that saw bets upon bets being placed on ‘bundled’ mortgages, the individual elements of which were based on credit that was, in the oft-repeated phrase of the movie’s protagonists, “shit, just pure shit.”


These wizards built vast empires of imaginary wealth via arcane instruments—“collateralized debt obligations, tranches, sub-prime mortgages, oh my!”—that ultimately came crashing down, leaving the American economy in shambles, the housing market decimated, and millions of families forced to migrate on from their two-story ranch homes to crammed apartments or to the in-laws in a modernized version of The Grapes of Wrath.

There was diabolical genius, a highly stylized game of musical chairs, involved in the Great Crash of 2008, and the complexity of the financial instruments used to engineer it was part and parcel of why it went on so long without detection.

We have both Lewis and now the filmmaker/scriptwriter Adam McKay to thank for unraveling, at least to a great degree, those complexities with highly stylized narrative devices of their own.

Like the book, the film anchors the tale in a handful of individual bond and hedge fund managers. They are both shrewd and almost disbelieving as they begin to comprehend—and capitalize on—the massive fraud being perpetrated on the U.S. and ultimately the world economy by unconscionable schemes to lend legions of unqualified borrowers far more than they could ever pay back in a lifetime, with no—or at least very few—questions asked.


I remember a client referred to me at the time, a mortgage broker peddling financing for large rural properties in the luscious hinterlands of Sonoma County. He was anxious to produce a flyer extolling the virtues of jumbo loans for clients to build custom homes on those lands. And he wanted to emphasize a key feature: “No income verification required.”

As part of my own due diligence, I checked in with him on that point, incredulous. I was thinking there must me some mistake that million dollar+ loans would require no income verification. He assured me, with a wan smile, that was exactly what it meant, and could I please hurry up with that flyer production? (Our relationship began and ended with that flyer; there was something about that wan smile that didn’t sit well with me.)

It’s impossible to estimate how many players in the financial world made a killing on the fraudulent practices brought to light in “The Big Short.” But we know a little something about who suffered while the big banks were propped up, purportedly in the service of preserving the world economy. That propping up was at the expense of the U.S. taxpayer, who was left holding a bag drained of all value by the antics of the financiers.


Those antics are brought into sharp focus by the filmmaker McKay, who tells his tale in dark tragi-comic fashion, wildly entertaining and dismaying at the same time. One method is to have the actors regularly step out of character to address the audience directly. Scenes of volcanic, profanity-laced temper tantrums by hedge fund managers suddenly give way to Selena Gomez at a card table in Las Vegas, jauntily explaining the house of cards on Wall Street that saw bets upon bets being placed on “bundled” mortgages, the individual elements of which were based on credit that was, in the oft-repeated phrase of the movie’s protagonists, “shit, just pure shit.”

Such manic filmmaking perfectly suits the manic tenor of the times, and it gives the audience more than one hearty chuckle, even as we shake our heads yet again at the wages of unbridled greed, unmoored from either legal regulation or common decency.

I made a point of taking my 17-year-old daughter to the movie, figuring it would be good for her financial education and further immersion in the not-always-salutary ways of the adult world. She hears plenty from me about the essential goodness of humanity, but then there is this; this too…

As we were leaving the theater, I put out a tentative, “Well?…”

“I’m going to put my money under my mattress,” was what came out of her mouth.

A not inappropriate response at that moment, considering.

But by the time we got through dinner, I’d once again raised the issue of directing some of her savings into a DRIP (dividend reinvestment) plan in a blue chip stock that just might leave her wealthy beyond measure by the time she gets to be my age, the eighth wonder of the world being compound interest. The fact that she didn’t snort left me slightly relieved, but I also couldn’t help wondering: Does that make me a cockeyed, star-crossed optimist?

Only time—and no doubt the collective response following upon multiple more financial crises yet to come—will tell.


On Facebook? Check out this blog’s public page there for daily snippets of wisdom and other musings from the world’s great thinkers and artists, accompanied by lovely photography.

Twitter: @AndrewHidas


Deep appreciation to the photographers!

Elizabeth Haslam, for the photos gracing the rotating banner at the top of this page. Some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at:

Gazing atop the cityscape photo by Josh Boles, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at:

Toxic finance photo by Attac France, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at:

Wall Street t-shirt photo by Mike Licht, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at:

7 comments to The Tragi-Comedy of “The Big Short”

  • lindapproulx  says:

    Thank you Andrew for this great commentary on the movie, book and state of our economy. It brought to mind my own upbringing in a suburb just outside of the city of Pittsburgh. We lived in a simple 3 and 1 home with a backyard. We had a car, TV and stereo, but that was about it for gadgets. My Dad, a high school grad, worked hard for a modest income. When it was time to put my brother and I through college, Mom went back to work. My folks were very thrifty, so they made quite a lot out of a little. We never felt deprived. When I look around now at our lifestyle, full of excesses in terms of possessions, and what it is built on, I feel very disturbed. Not only has much of it been built on deceptive financial practices, but what value is all of this consuming bringing to our lives? These are important questions, worth discussing with our kids and with one another.

  • joan voight (@shapelygrape)  says:

    “No income verification.” Exactly. The problem was right in front of our faces. I remember when editors had a problem when I used the term “predatory lending” to describe a big mortgage company at the time. That was exactly what the company did, but bosses worried the term was biased or political or something. It wasn’t.
    Shame on the business press of that era.

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Linda, you bring up a whole different angle on this, which I appreciate very much. The book and movie and all the media commentary around the crash emphasized how American homeowners/consumers had been hoodwinked and lured into loans they couldn’t possibly manage, and the various upheavals that ensued. Fair enough, and the banks and brokers bear heavy responsibility for the debacle. That said, when did huge homes with a thousand toys and an open-ended credit card become either a human right or more importantly, a human need? One just has to look at suicide and drug addiction stats in affluent areas to know that something is highly amiss with our hard-working materialist culture.

    Joan, there’s a powerful scene in the movie where a couple of bond traders who are onto the whole story want to give it to an acquaintance of theirs at the Wall Street Journal, but he shoos them out of his office in unceremonious fashion. He has a wife and kids, and these are many of his sources they’re talking about, with the power to ruin him. End of story—at least until the whole edifice collapsed.

  • Jay Helman  says:

    I remember clearly the “this can’t go on” refrain. I also recall being more curious about how people figured they’d pay off debt than how they were able to secure such huge debt; and that still puzzles me. I do not discount the evils of predatory lenders, but remain puzzled by how folks thought they were going to meet debt obligations. I suppose it is akin to the “no pain, no work” five minutes a day workout that will shed 50 pounds in a week mentality. If it all looks too good or too easy to be true, it likely is. On a personal note, I was a college president at the time and had been on a fundraising trip to meet with a benefactor in Texas. Our ask was for him to consider $10M as a lead gift for a new student center on our campus. My first hint that the economy was in trouble was when this Texas oilman called and said “Jay, I’d like to help out but I am a little short on cash right now.” It was a big ask, to be sure. But he had been a steady and faithful seven figure donor who never betrayed concerns about not having enough— but this one got him too. Another confusing point for me is in regard to the film. I notice that the film is in the category of Comedy for awards season. There were some lighthearted moments and a few laughs; but comedy????

  • David Moriah  says:

    Similarly to what Jay says above, though I believe Satan is preparing a special level of hell for those who knowingly set up this pyramid scheme and sought out home buyers to prey upon, the people whose lives were turned upside down by it all were willing victims! What were THEY thinking? This also brings to mind the body of research being done in the last few years over happiness, and the unassailable conclusion that’s been made that what makes us happy are experiences, not stuff. The big screen tv, the speed boat, etc. give us a momentary rush of joy, but the wonderful vacation, the Broadway show, heck, the World Series game you attended – these memories we can live over and over again which give us sustained happiness. I told my family a few years ago that for birthdays, Christmas, etc. I don’t need more stuff! Give me an experience. My son and I went skydiving together as his present to me for my 60th birthday. Very cool, and makes me smile 5 years later.

    Do you know of the Ted Radio Hour on NPR? There’s a great podcast titled “Simply Happy” from October 16, 2015. Check it out.

    And thanks for the review. Sounds like a movie worth seeing.

  • dkahern1958  says:

    I vividly remember the day the whole thing went to shit. I had gone up to some local mountains on a bad winding washboard road for a long run by myself. I had had a sublime day. The palpable ‘realness’ of my surroundings and the simple act of running slowly for hour after hour brought me back to the truck in a familiar state of being after that kind of activity: really tired and really satisfied. On the drive back as I came within radio range and NPR began to snap to life, I heard about the collapse and thought, “Man, I should head back into the mountains.” I weathered the storm in good shape since I had a simple and acquisition-averse lifestyle. A lot of people I know were not so lucky. This is all a cautionary tale that will certainly be forgotten. Greed is a powerful intoxicant. I’m going to take my 17 y.o. daughter to see this tonight.

  • Jay Helman  says:

    David, I heard joy recently described as a foundation; a sort of fundamental way of being in the world. It was described as the background in the Gestalt, with experiences of happiness and sorrow floating across the screen in temporal snapshots, thus capturing the futility of trying to grab hold of, and keep things to make us happy.

Leave a Reply