Funny Money: ‘The Big Short’ Squeezes Laughter From Tragic Events

The film spotlights some of the major players who profited from the subprime housing crisis.
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Catherine McHugh
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The film spotlights some of the major players who profited from the subprime housing crisis.
The Big Short Photo

Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling in a scene from "The Big Short," a film based on Michael Lewis’s book about the 2008 collapse of the subprime-mortgage market. (Photo: Paramount)

They say comedy is tragedy plus time. So who better than writer/director Adam McKay (best known for such comedic gems as Anchorman and The Other Guys) to adapt Michael Lewis’s book about the 2008 collapse of the subprime-mortgage market for the big screen? A current-events hound, McKay read The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine in one day and subsequently convinced Brad Pitt’s Plan B production company (which had optioned the book) that he was the guy to tackle the complicated subject matter and translate the financial-speak into an entertaining script.

The film follows a few shrewd financial outsiders who managed to uncover the convoluted fraud investment banks were perpetuating in the housing market a few years before the crash. Its snappy setup makes viewers root for these men to be proved right—until they realize that by betting against the collateralized debt obligation bubble, they became rich while millions of people lost everything. 

Of course, their only real crime was taking advantage of a crooked system that was already imploding. But as the world knows, the real “bad guys” did not pay in the end. To prevent a global economic collapse, the banks were bailed out and most are now more successful than ever.

So, as a comedy with an unhappy ending, The Big Short will likely make audiences laugh and cry; the producers hope it will also make them think and remember. 

The film’s December 23 release date comes just in time for Christmas, and some early reviews are already hailing it as one of the best movies of the year. Here's a look at the real-life men who inspired four of the major players in the non-fiction bestseller and the marquee names who portray them in the movie.

Steve Eisman

Steve Carell stars as FrontPoint Partners hedge fund manager Mark Baum, a character based on the real-life Steve Eisman. As the main protagonist, he is brash, outspoken, clearly intelligent and very angry—especially as the scope of the bank fraud becomes clear. Before filming, Carell met with Eisman, who also visited the set and offered notes.

Following the notoriety he achieved from betting against subprime mortgages, Eisman ran his own hedge fund. Today, he is working as a managing director at the Eisman Group within Neuberger Berman Group alongside with his parents, who decades ago, helped him get his first financial sector job at Oppenheimer & Company.

Steve Eisman Steve Carell The Big Short Photo

 Steve Carell (right) plays hedge fund manager Mark Baum, who is based on Steve Eisman (left) in "The Big Short."

Dr. Michael Burry 

Christian Bale plays another Wall Street outsider. Dr. Michael Burry, who has a glass eye and Asperger’s syndrome, began taking a serious interest in the market during his medical residency at Stanford Hospital. At the time, the dotcom bubble was reaching its height, and he wanted to understand why the market was acting so irrationally. Leaving medicine, he founded Scion Capital in 2000 and became one of the first fund managers to bet against the subprime housing market. 

Bale met with the man who was instrumental in creating a market for credit default swaps, which allowed other investors to bet against the subprime mortgage market, and defends him, saying he is one of the most sincere people he has ever met. Indeed, the film makes clear that Burry tried to sound the alarm but nobody would believe him.

After making $700 million in the crash for his skeptical Scion Capital investors, a conflicted Burry closed up shop in 2008 to focus on his own investments and in 2010, he bought his first almond farm. In 2013, he launched Scion Asset Management and currently serves as its CEO.

Michael Burry Christian Bale The Big Short Photo

Dr. Michael Burry (left) and his onscreen counterpart Christian Bale (right).

Ben Hockett

Brad Pitt stars as Ben Rickert, based on ex-banker Ben Hockett who joins up with Cornwall Capital Management founders Charlie Ledley and Jamie Mai after meeting Mai while walking his dog in Berkeley. The trio approached Wall Street from the outside with a few big ideas that they thought had money-making potential and they discovered mortgages. In the movie, it is Hockett who scolds his colleagues for celebrating their get-rich-quick strategy by reminding them that they are betting against the American economy. Today, Hockett is described as a Doomsday prepper who lives as a bit of recluse.

Brad Pitt Photo

Brad Pitt plays Ben Rickert, based on ex-banker Ben Hockett. Pitt's Plan B production company optioned "The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine" by Michael Lewis, who also wrote the book which inspired Pitt's movie "Moneyball" (2011). (Photo: Paramount)

Greg Lippmann

Most of the chatter about Ryan Gosling’s performance has focused on his wig and toned-down looks, but his character plays a key role in the film. Jared Vennett, loosely based on Deutsche Bank trader Greg Lippmann, serves as the film’s narrator and occasionally breaks the so-called fourth wall to explain the action to the audience. Gosling did meet with Lippman who offered some insight on financial lay of the land at the time. Lippman was a Deustche Bank salesman who sold insurance on mortgage­backed securities to the hedge funds and realized the genius behind the credit-default swaps (CDOs) betting on this system to fail. He remained at Deustche Bank until 2010, when he co-founded LibreMax Capital where he currently serves as the chief investment officer and portfolio manager. 

Greg Lippmann Ryan Gosling Photo

Ryan Gosling (right) plays Jared Vennett, a character loosely based on Deutsche Bank trader Greg Lippmann (left).