In the Futurama episode “Where No Fan Has Gone Before,” a Star Trek super-fan marvels at how the classic show always managed to make things easy to understand by having one character come up with a complicated plan and then having another explain it using a simple analogy. For example, Spock would lay out the technical details, and then Kirk or McCoy would say something like, “So, it’d be like letting air out of a balloon!” to which a visibly annoyed Spock would reply, “A crude, but apt analogy, Captain/Doctor.” By no means does Star Trek have the exclusive on that old storytelling trick. You see it living on today in shows like Flash and Doctor Who. However, ever since Futurama made that joke about Star Trek I’ve always associated the “Jargon, jargon, jargon”/”Oh, I get it. You mean [analogy we’d understand]” trick with Gene Roddenberry’s baby.
Well, there are scenes in Adam McKay’s new Wall Street comedy The Big Short which reminded me of Star Trek. One of the film’s greatest strengths is its ability to help us understand the 2008 home loan mortgage crisis which cratered the world economy (um, sorry about that Greece), and it uses pretty much every trick in the book to pull that off. There are multiple surprise celebrity cameos which are both funny and effective in their attempts to dumb things down for us, e.g., a gorgeous actress bathing in a hot tub while explaining that the complicated terms the characters are throwing around is basically just shorthand, “This market is absolute shit, and I am betting you a lot of money that it’s going to fail within a year and a half.” The action is sometimes paused so that a weird-sounding word, for example “traunch,” can be defined via white text printed on the screen. Ryan Gosling’s stock trader frequently talks directly to the camera, and provides remarkably helpful voice-over narration throughout. That doesn’t mean you’ll understand everything, but you should get the gist of it.
Arguably, the most important scene along the way is when Gosling’s character uses a Jenga model to explain the inevitable collapse of the home market to Steve Carrell’s hedge fund manager and his handful of employees. This is the meeting that sets off so much of the rest of the movie, and it lays out the underlying economic reality which inspired the film’s handful of Wall Street outsiders to bet against the home market when no one else saw the collapse coming. At one point in the presentation, Gosling confidently proclaims, “Gentlemen, I present to you a house that is already on fire, and I am here selling you insurance on it.” That is an easy to understand statement, or at least it was for me.
It seems like every movie about Wall Street has at least one scene like that, and has to use every available trick to ensure that audiences at least kind of understand the remarkably complicated world of stock market trading. The Wolf of Wall Street similarly has a protagonist who talks directly to the camera, telling us at one point that all we really need to know is that nothing his firm was doing was technically legal. Wall Street has Gordon Gecko distill his personal philosophy for us with his infamous “Greed is good” speech.
Forbes noticed this, too, and put together the following video which highlights the key moments in The Big Short, Wolf of Wall Street, Wall Street and Trading Places which used clever screenwriting tricks to explain the world of high finance in terms we could all understand: