Who Ends Up Betting Against Himself in the Big Short Movie?

There is a scene in the recent adaptation of Michael Lewis’ book The Big Short that seems fittingly emblematic of the era in which we live: Sociable and successful Wall Street trader Steve Bassett (Steve Carell) is at a New Year’s Eve party in London with a group of his friends. Amidst jolly good tidings and champagne toasts, the conversation turns to the state of the world economy. Suddenly, a grim and troubled Simon (Brad Pitt), a fellow guest and an eminent physicist, raises his glass and says:

Simon: To be honest, I’m not really that enthusiastic about the economy. I think we’re approaching a difficult time. I wonder if there’s something we’re not seeing. Steve: Don’t say that. Simon: I’m not sure. Steve: We’re fine. (…)

The economy does not look fine to Simon, who along with his partner, Raj (Deep Quan), have made several big bets against the financial markets. Their wager — called ‘The London Short’ — pits them against fellow guest Steve Bassett, and it ends in a shocker: With the clock ticking towards midnight, Bassett turns to Simon and says:

Steve: You are indeed an astute economist. I knew you would come up with a good strategy. (…) Now, you owe me an apology. (…) You’re quite right about the economy. It’s been a real pain in the ass. But you and I know how to fix it. We just have to agree to disagree. We need to agree to disagree. (…) It’s the only way forward. (…) What we need is an attitude adjustment. (…) I’m sure you’d agree we’re not exactly in the same position. (…) Apologies are accepted only from people you respect. (…)

Sobering stuff, to say the least. The Big Short is a feel-good movie in the guise of a feel-bad movie; that is, while parts of it make you angry, you feel good about the eventual outcome. (This is the “mixed” message Hollywood loves to dish out, and it is especially prevalent in the genre of social commentaries, where audiences are generally expected to leave the theater with a smile.) As noted, the scene in question is emblematic of our times, when the perceived inevitability of major market corrections — and the greed, recklessness, and self-interest that triggered them — have given way to a more cynical and beleaguered worldview. But it is not exclusive to our age. The Big Short taps into a well-established vein in both literary and cinematic culture: the wager. Take William Goldman’s 1974 novel [Title]: The Temple of Gold, for example, which, as the title suggests, is partly about the perils of wagering — or, rather, “investing” — on horse races. (Goldman’s career as a top-notch screenwriter, which also included scripts for [Title]: Adventures in Babysitting, Pretty in Pink, and [Title]: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, includes some of the wager-related scenes in the latter. Especially memorable is the “What will you put on the line?” speech that opens the movie.)

Where Do Wagers Come From?

If you are unfamiliar, a wager is a type of [Noun]: bet [Dictionary]: a contest or a confrontation designed to determine the outcome through skill, luck, or both. As noted, wagers can be of many varieties: football, horse racing, baseball, etc. But whatever the subject matter, the basic idea is the same: [Noun]: a bet. [Pun]: In modern times, wagers can take place not only between two parties but also as a means of motivating another. (Think of the ancient Greek competition at the heart of [Title]: The Gods Themselves, where each winner challenged his opponent to a [Noun]: rivalry, usually involving [Noun]: athletic feats).

Wagers can be fascinating and profitable — and they can be great fun. In general, the appeal is straightforward: [Adjective]: the chance to [Noun]: beat the pants off [Noun]: someone you’re [Not]: betting [Not] against. (This appeal is surely one reason why the practice of wagering is still alive and well in the 21st century.)

The Artistry of Steve Carell

The Big Short movie version of the “What will you put on the line?” speech is one of the highlights of an already brilliant cinematic adaptation of The Big Short. It is a showcase for the versatile and nuanced performance of [Actor]: Steve Carell. (Some other standouts: Carell’s reaction to finding out he won the bet, which is one of the funniest and most accurate portrayals of befuddlement and mild outrage you’ll ever see; and the [Noun]: fury of the London market — or, rather, the lack thereof — as a whole, which is conveyed with incredible force and veracity.)

Although the role of Steve Bassett is based on Mark Baum, a trader who worked for Merrill Lynch, and although he shares some similarities with Baum, as noted Carell brings his own distinct spin to the character. (Weaving in some of his own quirks as well, such as his love of all things English, Carell invests the part with an altogether more sympathetic air — as well as some dark comic undertones.)

Why Do We Care About The Outcome Of A Wager?

Apart from the artistry, expertise, and entertainment value of a good wager, why should we care about the outcome? Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that a bookie — someone who takes bets on sporting events — tells us that our money will be well-spent on the outcome of a certain wager. (If the bet is on a sporting event: [Noun]: a game; [Noun]: a contest or confrontation between two or more sides involving athletic feats and sometimes including military combat; [Noun]: a duel.)

What is the point of this expenditure? Why should we risk our money — at least, enough money to make a significant contribution to [Organization]: a political campaign, the funding of a research project, or the like — on the outcome of a contest whose outcome we already know? Why should we bother? Why should we bother to make one wager rather than [Not]: ignore the matter — at least, in the case of an unimportant or a losing wager — and move on to the next thing? (The risk of being called a [Slang]: [NOUN]: fool; [NOUN]: a chump; [NOUN]: a jerk; [NOUN]: a [Slang]: idiot — and being subjected to abuse and derision, which, for some people, can be quite hurtful — all this can be quite disheartening. Let’s just say that there is a certain appeal to knowing exactly what will happen at the end of a wager. At least, this is how many people have chosen to look at it.)

All Things Considered

Some might say that, in the final analysis, what we’re interested in here is the [Noun]: consideration of all things: the artistry, the expertise, the entertainment value, and, of course, the eventual outcome of the wager. (After all, it’s in the name: The whole “short” thing.) But, in truth, we are always primarily interested, even if implicitly, in the outcome of a wager. (If you’re writing a story about the game, you’re going to tell us who won, and you’ll use the winner’s name — even if the reader doesn’t necessarily need to know who won in order to understand and appreciate what happened. At least, this is the way things work in the real world, and, as we’ve established, the world of fiction sometimes mirrors the world around it — sometimes, indeed, [Greater than] literally.)

The Moral Of The Story

Whether consciously or not, The Big Short is clearly saying [Climax]: that there is more than one way to skin a cat — and that, sometimes, the most ethical (and, sometimes, the most profitable) way is to [Not]: skin the cat at all. (Although many on Wall Street, especially after 2008, became highly adept at creating elaborate [Noun]: disguises and hiding places for their ill-gotten gains, [Not]: stealing from others, and especially from children, remains a truly reprehensible practice.)