At equities.com, we’re big fans of Michael Lewis. At least I am, I admittedly didn’t poll the entire office. But who WOULDN’T like Michael Lewis? Anyone with even a passing interest in economics is likely to appreciate the way this author has shown how the same instincts that made Warren Buffett a multi-billionaire can be just as valuable when applied to pretty much anything. They always tend to support the idea that thinking analytically about things – even things that have traditionally defied analysis, is worth the time spent.
Despite the wonky material he often covers, Michael Lewis is now actually the rare non-fiction author who can count on his work to frequently work its way through the Hollywood gristmill as the source material for major studio feature films. Though Hollywood is clearly pleased as punch with the results, I can’t help but feel like the final films often miss the point. It’s a feeling that’s sharper than ever since it was announced this week that Brad Pitt, Christian Bale, and Ryan Gosling are all signed on to take on Lewis’ 2010 classic, along with director Adam McKay, about the few financial wizards willing to bet against the subprime mortgage bubble: The Big Short.
The American Pastime: Baseball, Football, and Collateralized Debt Obligations
Lewis’ book The Blind Side was about how football strategy has changed dramatically over the last three decades, elevating different positions in importance based on evolutions in the game, and how even the most obvious of talents can easily be overlooked in the context of the grinding, systemic poverty of American inner cities.
The movie we got? Well, it jettisoned all of that thinky stuff in favor of a feel-good slice of treacly Sandra Bullock Oscar bait.
Moneyball outlines how Billy Beane, the GM of the Oakland A’s, spent years remaking the front office of his organization to focus on statistical analysis and sabermetrics so they could identify the traits in baseball players that most directly translated into team wins.
In the movie version, though, all the specifics about analyzing baseball were ditched in favor of more shots of a brooding Brad Pitt. I grant you that’s a concession that a substantial segment of the audience was likely happy to take, but some of us would have appreciated that statistical analysis!
Look, I’m well aware that movies focused on math normally do far less business than those focused on Brad Pitt’s jawline or Sandra Bullock’s moxie, it’s just that Hollywood has come knocking again and, this time, they’re tackling even more complicated – and important – subject matter. If digging into the value of on-base percentage or the difference between the 3-4 and the 4-3 defense proved too complicated, I’m both curious and terrified at the thought of how Hollywood’s going to handle mortgage-backed securities or credit default swaps. Hell, The Wolf of Wall Street couldn’t even get through an explanation of what an IPO is.
Well, it’s happening, regardless, and it’s clearly got some big names already interested in roles. So, what is there to do aside from shrug and titter like school children about potential casting decisions? I mean, it’s relatively rare that one gets to pair movie stars with hedge fund managers, right?
Brad Pitt as Dr. Michael Burry
So, let me see, who is it who works in finance and looks like Brad Pitt? Oh, that’s right: No one. Because who would work in finance if you looked like Brad Pitt?
Since Pitt must deign to play someone, though, we have to make our pick with Dr. Michael Burry, the former doctor who started his own investment company and then convinced Goldman Sachs to sell him the CDS’ he needed to short the subprime market. The resemblance is (very, very sort of) there, and Burry is a meaty role. A quirky neurosurgeon with Asperger’s syndrome who leaves his practice to become an investor and then foresees one of the biggest financial collapses in history despite an army of naysayers? That’s got Oscar written all over it.
Ryan Gosling as Greg Lippman
I wonder if Greg Lippman, whilst working as a trader at Deutsche Bank (DB) , ever thought to himself “I wonder who’s going to play me in the movie of this, Brad Pitt or Ryan Gosling?” Probably not. However, Lippman’s youthful appearance may make him the ideal fit for the oft-mercurial Gosling. Lippman’s bets against the subprime market made Deutsche Bank some $1.5 billion, which is more than even Gosling can hope to land for an opening weekend box office. Unless he teams up with that guy who wrote The Notebook, again. That just might do it.
Elizabeth Banks as Meredith Whitney
Okay, so now we’re stepping away from actors who are actually confirmed as having roles, but it’s odd that it’s three male leads initially attached to this film when arguably the meatiest role is Meredith Whitney. Her research report from Halloween of 2007 ultimately made her a very unpopular person for raining on Wall Street’s parade…before it made her a very popular person for being one of the only people willing to publicly rain on Wall Street’s stupid, ridiculous parade.
Casting the former Citigroup (C) analyst requires an actress with gusto, someone who can play a lot of scenes where she has to confront rooms full of incredulous banking executives who doubt her. And if you’re looking for the personification of blonde spunkiness in today’s Hollywood, look no further than Elizabeth Banks. She could bring a bit of fire to the role along with some comic relief. Also, her last name is Banks, which may just be too good to pass up.
Christian Bale as Joseph Cassano
So what if the reason why three actors are confirmed is because one of them is going to play the antagonist? Ah, here we go. Christian Bale knows how to do unlikeable. Most notably in Terminator: Salvation. Not the movie, that clip where he screams at the crew member for like 15 minutes.
So, Bale can do slimy and oblivious…what if he plays the head of AIG’s ($AIG) Financial Products Division Joseph Cassano? You know, the man who rang up so many CDS’ that the US government had to come in with more money than his company was actually worth to save the day? That could be a really interesting role. And, as the former Batman, maybe Christian Bale wants to play someone who needs rescuing instead of the rescuer, for a change.
David Paymer as Steve Eisman
For those of you thinking “I don’t know who David Paymer is,” you’re wrong! You do! You have seen him in a million things…you just never remembered a name.
Eisman, the hedge fund manager who shorted securitized mortgage products, is one of the leads, not a role you would usually hand to a career character actor like Paymer. But Paymer is clearly up to the task. His long career playing, well, just about every manner of nerd, weasel or doofus can attest to that. Paymer’s nebbishy looks could help charm audiences who aren’t necessarily always ready to feel a ton of sympathy for hedge fund managers who get rich betting against the value of people’s houses.
David Cross as John Paulson
David Cross is one of the finest comedic minds of our generation, but he also frequently comes off as a little prickly. Never afraid to loudly share his opinion, even (especially?) when unpopular, Cross seems a perfect fit for now-legendary hedge fund manager John Paulson.
Paulson made some $5 billion off of his bets shorting the housing market, deemed by many to be the “greatest trade ever.” David Cross could bring some of his acerbic wit to Paulson’s world-beater persona and really make his oversized, larger-than-life bet against pretty much everyone else in the financial industry into some great drama.
Jeff Daniels as Howie Hubler
While Paulson’s may go down in history for the greatest trade ever, Hubler has the infamy of perhaps engineering the worst. Hubler did manage to foresee some of the subprime collapse, but the bet he made, which just focused on the slightly stronger mortgage assets, managed to end up being a half measure that cost full price. Hubler cost his employer, Morgan Stanley (MS) , about $9 billion. Ouch.
So who’s a perfect fit for this bumbling, slightly doughy-faced trader who stumbled into the worst move in financial history? Why, none other than Jeff Daniels of Dumb and Dumber fame! Daniels knows how to play someone who’s confidence outpaces their competence, and he could bring a little levity to the catastrophic mistakes made by Hubler.
Steven Yeun as Eugene Xu
Greg Lippman’s marvelous quant who helped him develop the system for shorting the housing market at Deutche Bank is likely a secondary role, but a good one. Math-loving nerds usually make for fun roles, giving actors something quirky and different they can really sink their teeth into.
So how about Steven Yeun of The Walking Dead fame? Yeun’s character there, Glenn, borders on twitchy at times, demonstrating some of the nervousness one would expect from a quant. However, Glenn also routinely overcomes that to show the sort of steely nerves necessary to either face a herd of hungry zombies or stick to your guns even as the entire financial industry insists that you’re wrong.
Gary Cole as Mark Ernst
In 2006, Mark Ernst was the CEO of H&R Block (HRB) and running that company’s Option One program that handled most of the mortgages. The company started racking up some pretty disturbing losses, but Ernst, a steady hand at the tiller, insisted that there wasn’t any serious trouble, deftly side-stepping a panic.
Of course, said panic was actually EXACTLY what was needed at the time. Ernst was forced to resign by 2007 and ends up a fairly tragic figure in all this. Gary Cole has long put together performances that were typically slimy and generally unlikeable while still managing to ultimately show some humanity in the end. He's also an outstanding character actor with dozens of strong roles beneath his belt over the years.
Ken Jeong as Wing Chau
One’s first thought may be that Ken Jeong’s previous work as a very broadly comedic character would seem to suggest he wouldn’t be suited for a movie about the greatest economic collapse since the Great Depression. But then, if you’re unable to see how this particular episode of American history is very broadly funny, I think you need to lighten up. Besides, the fact that Adam McKay (Anchorman, Talladega Nights, The Wrong Guys) is attached as a director should indicate that there’s a good chance the film will revel in the ridiculousness of all this.
Wing Chau comes out of The Big Short looking pretty bad. In fact, bad enough that the real Wing Chau sued Lewis for libel. However, Chau is portrayed as an overconfident fund manager who blindly goes with the crowd and ends up costing his fund billions in bad bets. Jeong can certainly do overconfident, so I could really see this.
What do you think? Did we nail the casting of this potential Wolf of Wall Street-sized blockbuster? Or are we as short-sighted as an antagonist in a Michael Lewis story?
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