Many filmmakers have tried to transpose the real-life drama of the 2008 housing crisis onto the big screen, but watching the collapse of the global economy never held much appeal to the general moviegoing audience.
Of course, comedy auteur Adam McKay (Anchorman) is not "many filmmakers," so his latest picture The Big Short manages to entertain well beyond any expectations for a financial drama.
Stacked with a star-studded cast, The Big Short follows the intersecting stories of several Wall Street visionaries, such as autistic hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale), smart-mouthed money manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell), slick trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), and wild-eyed conspiracy theorist Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt).
These brave men actually managed to predict the housing crisis before it happened, betting against the debt bubble and creating the credit default swap market. Now, if that last sentence made no sense to you, don't worry—you're in the majority. McKay and his co-writer realized that most people don't understand complex financial jargon, so they cleverly thought to place a slew of major pop culture cameos throughout the film as mouthpieces to make the audience pay attention. Wondering who these mystery celebs might be? Look no further—we've got a full rundown below!
The film's first celebrity cameo is also its sexiest, as Australian bombshell Margot Robbie—who may be best known for her turn in another finance-themed movie, The Wolf of Wall Street—appears naked in a bathtub to educate us on subprime loans. As she luxuriates beneath the bubbles with a glass of champagne, Margot easily explains that subprime lending refers to the practice of making loans to people who are unlikely to be able to pay them back, thus building a massive revenue stream based on money that doesn't really exist.
Noted TV chef and raconteur Anthony Bourdain takes the second cameo slot, appearing in the kitchen of one of his world-famous restaurants to deliver an informative description of CDOs (collateralized debt obligation). Using the example of making seafood stew out of days-old fish to avoid wasting food, the culinary maestro explains that CDOs are packaged securities that take a bunch of unrelated fixed assets and bundle them into one package which is then tiered into sections called tranches. Many of these CDOs appear solid because they are lumped in with high-ranking assets, but, in reality, a great deal of the capital is bunk—staked on debt which could never easily be repaid.
The Big Short's climactic cameo sees iconic pop star Selena Gomez taking the floor of a Las Vegas casino alongside famed economist Dr. Richard Thaler to illustrate the concept of synthetic CDOs. The mini-scene shows Selena playing blackjack in front of a crowd of average spectators. Selena represents a lender whose debt is stacked within a CDO, and her gambles represent the chance that she might default. We then see the onlookers start to place their own side-bets on whether or not Selena will win the game. Enter the perverse concept of synthetic CDOs, a ploy wherein speculative investors actually put money either for or against real people defaulting on their assets. This snake-eating-its-tail monstrosity was among the greatest offenders of the decadent pre-2008 Wall Street climate. When Selena loses the game, America loses its money.
Though the topics at play in The Big Short are deadly serious and pretty esoteric, the film succeeds across the board in giving us a spoonful of media-sugar to help the medicine go down. In effect, these celebs made economics a whole lot sexier. Much like the financial market, McKay took a risky gamble on breaking the fourth wall to address his audience directly with superstars unrelated to his movie's plot. But, unlike the sub-prime market, this bet paid off big time, making a hilarious and exciting potboiler out of a topic that could have easily been a snooze-fest.