What Five Big-Budget Hollywood Movies Can Teach You About The Financial Crisis

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One major insight: rich bankers really love riding in helicopters.

By EJ Dickson

If you don't watch Bloomberg, read Paul Krugman's New York Times op-eds, or have a secret fangirl crush on Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, you may not have mastered the nuances of the worldwide financial crisis. That's why Hollywood producers decided to help you out by releasing financial crisis-themed movies like Tower Heist, a big-budget comedy that spins the suffering of millions of Americans into box-office gold. Starring Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy, Tower Heist follows a group of building employees plotting to rob the apartment of a Madoff-esque Wall Street financier, who stole their pensions in a Ponzi scheme. But it's not the first movie to use the economic crisis as a source of cinematic inspiration. In honor of Tower Heist's release — and in honor of Hollywood's long-standing tradition of turning lemons into shittier lemons — here are five cinematic takes on the financial crisis, and what you can learn from them. Grab a copy of Wall Street 2 from your nearest DVD bargain bin, 'cause you're about to get schooled.

1. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010)

The premise: The sequel to Oliver Stone's Reagan-era classic, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is set in 2008, after antihero Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) is released from an eight-year prison sentence. The movie focuses on Gekko and star propriety trader Jacob Moore (Shia LeBeouf)'s takedown of investment banker Bratton James (Josh Brolin), a cutthroat motherfucker who profited from the collapse of Moore's old firm.

What you learn: With its smash-cut montages of cable news reports and stock listings, Stone's slick film aims for "ripped from the headlines" relevancy. But it's less interested in providing insight into the inner workings of the financial crisis, and more interested in showing how much investment bankers enjoy riding in helicopters and racing Ducatis. Although screenwriter Alan Loeb consulted with numerous investors during the project, we don't actually see anyone doing any of the hot 'n sexy shit that helped bring about the financial crisis, like say, turning crappy subprime mortgages into toxic CDOs and selling them to investors. But that would probably have been too steamy for the movie's PG-13 rating.

Best finance-y lines about finance things: "Sometimes I think that only seventy-five people in the world know what CDOs are. But I'll tell you what they are: WMDs. Weapons of mass destruction." — Gordon Gekko

"You're the worst kind of toxic debt in the system." — Moore, to James

2. Too Big to Fail (2011)

The premise: Based on Andrew Ross Sorkin's book, Too Big to Fail (or as I like to call it, "2 Illegit 2 Quit") premiered on HBO last May. Featuring an all-star cast of good-looking actor types made up to look like slightly less good-looking finance types, 2I2Q maps out the events between the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the government bailout.

What we learn: A lot, actually — the film's primary goal is to provide an accessible, user-friendly account, so it goes out of its way to define terms and elucidate concepts for the benefit of the viewer (think of it as a SparkNotes for the subprime mortgage crisis). Unfortunately, this makes some of the dialogue seem clunky and expository. Still, as far as white-knuckled, financially-themed nail-biters go, the film is as white-knuckled a nail-biter as you can get.

Best finance-y lines about finance things: "No one wanted it. We were making too much money." — Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson (William Hurt), asked why the banks weren't more well-regulated

3. Margin Call (2011)

The premise: Released just a few weeks ago, the independent thriller Margin Call follows an investment banking firm over a twenty-four-hour period as it teeters on the brink of collapse. Through a series of Good Will Hunting-esque number-scribblings and chart-perusings, junior analyst Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) discovers that the firm is too highly leveraged for their volatility limits. What follows is a series of tense boardroom meetings and private crises of conscience, as the firm's power players grapple with the reality of the impending fallout.

What we learn: Well, you don't learn what "too highly leveraged for their volatility limits" means — Margin Call doesn't take as instructive an approach to the crisis as Too Big to Fail does. What it does teach you, however, is that the people at the top are just as dumb as we are: in-denial CEO John Tuld (a terrifying Jeremy Irons) fails to understand the significance of Sullivan's findings, repeatedly asking him to explain the numbers "like you would to a child, or a golden retriever." Perhaps we should just call it a day and put the banks in the hands of fifth-grade calculus prodigies, who at least wouldn't be inclined to spend half their annual salary on hookers and blow.

Most finance-y finance lines: "A guy bets on a number halfway around the world: one guy wins, one guy loses. If he wasn't doing this, he'd be doing it at an OTB somewhere." — Junior trader Seth (Penn Badgley)

"There are three ways to get ahead in this business: be first, be smarter, or cheat." — CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons)

4. Larry Crowne (2011)

The premise: Affable and Tom Hanks-esque Larry Crowne (Tom Hanks), a middle manager at a store, becomes another victim of the recession when he's downsized due to his lack of higher education. Unable to afford his mortgage or his car, he enrolls as a student in the local community college in an effort to start his life over, which means that he learns how to ride a scooter and has an awkward sex thing with his teacher (Julia Roberts).

What we learn: That the subprime mortgage crisis takes away innocent Americans' jobs, cars, and homes; and forces them to date Julia Roberts. I don't know — to be honest, I couldn't even get past the trailer.

Most finance-y finance lines: N/A, see above. Maybe Tom Hanks says something sparklingly lucid and intelligent about derivatives regulation. Either way, he probably rides a helicopter at some point.

5. Up in the Air (2009)

The premise: Although Jason Reitman's Oscar-nominated dramedy is not directly related to the economic crisis — the Walter Kirn novel it's based on was written in 2001 — Up in the Air is steeped in the concerns of the era. Yet the movie has only a tangential interest in the recession's victims; it's much more focused on corporate downsizer Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a rakish itinerant whose talent for firing people is only exceeded by his ability to get into fellow frequent flyer Alex's (Vera Farmiga) pants.  

What we learn: In Up in the Air, we really only see the impact of the economic crisis on a microcosmic level — that is, the interactions between Ryan and the unfortunate men and women he's been hired to ax. On a larger scale, however, we see how the harsh socioeconomic climate takes its toll on Ryan himself, who leads a nomadic lifestyle in order to avoid forming meaningful relationships. In an age when jobs and homes can be lost in the blink of an eye, Ryan embodies the characteristics of the ultimate corporate player:  impersonal, hollowly empathetic, and, up to the end of the film, unburdened by emotional attachment.

Most finance-y finance lines: "It's one of the worst times on record in America. This is our moment." — Ryan's boss (Jason Bateman), to Ryan