Bad Business = Good Entertainment

The plot of an engaging play debuting on Broadway this week is ripped straight from The Wall Street Journal. In the opening scene, high-living finance types celebrate an accounting technique that promises to vault their business into the stratosphere. There are off-balance sheets, conflicts of interest, credulous Wall Street analysts, a hands-off CEO, and a dorky and greasy-haired finance jockey who becomes a buff stud before crashing. When they're not screwing one another, the venal, vain executives are screwing over the shareholder.

The protagonist (played with flair and great energy by Tony Award winner Norbert Leo Butz) isn't Lehman Brothers CEO Richard Fuld or Bear Stearns CEO Jimmy Cayne. It's Jeffrey Skilling, the now-jailed CEO of Enron. The show, Enron, sends up what was, until the fall of 2008, one of the greatest debacles in American financial history. With the talk of George W. Bush's candidacy, deregulated electricity markets, and trading bandwidth capacity, the content is definitely last decade. But the human foibles it lays bare—the grasping, the arrogance and hubris of financiers, the temptations of off-balance-sheet debt, the corruption of the business establishment, and the refusal to take responsibility—are very much au courant.

This show's arrival on Broadway, nearly nine years after Enron's implosion, highlights a larger point. In our Law & Order, ripped-from-the-headlines times, why has the American entertainment machine been slow to turn the financial drama of 2008 into prime drama in 2010? There are projects in the works, to be sure. Andrew Ross Sorkin's Too Big to Fail, a chronicle of the demise of the system, was sold to HBO; Michael Lewis's The Big Short, a tale of a few misfits who bet against the subprime-mortgage market and won, has been optioned by Brad Pitt and Paramount. But it could be years before either appears. As Lewis noted: "It's hard to turn Wall Street into onscreen drama."

It's particularly tough to turn the most recent crisis into good entertainment. Blogs, in-depth newspaper reports, CNBC's wall-to-wall coverage, and several dozen nonfiction books have turned the players into too-familiar characters. Also, it's still too soon. The best and most enduring Wall Street entertainment hasn't been post-bull-market autopsies, but ripping bubble-era tales. Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities started as a serial in Rolling Stone in 1984 and 1985, and was published in 1987. Oliver Stone's Wall Street came out in December 1987, just two months after the crash. Even in this 24/7 media world, American audiences need more time. It's easy to forget that It's a Wonderful Life, a film that was essentially about the 1933-vintage bank crisis, didn't come out until 1946. As the old formula goes, tragedy plus time equals comedy. But as last week's charges against Goldman Sachs show, this tragedy isn't over—not by a long shot.

Maybe that's why the most ambitious efforts to make dramatic lemonade out of the financial lemons have come from Britain: they come with a built-in buffer, a distance. Enron started out in London, the brainchild of 29-year-old Lucy Prebble, creator of the British series Secret Diary of a Call Girl. Last fall the BBC aired a snappy, one-hour narrative, The Last Days of Lehman Brothers, with James Cromwell in the role of Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. The Britishisms can be off-putting—characters refer to Lehman as "Lehmans," and Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis, a Georgia native, has a drawl that sounds more Cornwall than Cobb County. Although many of the scenes are true to life, there's plenty of fantasy. At one point, Fuld and his assistant quote Revelations 18:3 to one another: "Because all the nations have drunk of the wine of the fury of her fornication … and the merchants of the earth have been enriched through the might of her luxury." On the real Wall Street, the only time big shots use the Lord's name, it's in vain.

Unfortunately, the latest financial inferno has yet to produce villains who can hold our attention for a couple of hours. At first blush, Bernard Madoff's epic Ponzi scheme would seem to be fodder for at least a television series. But the Madoff who emerged from his brief confession and several books is a banal, unrepentant liar who acted largely on his own. There are no depths of soul to plumb. The FX series Damages, in its third season, centers on the Madoff-esque Louis Tobin, but he confesses and is sentenced in the first episode; by the third, he's committed suicide. Ted Danson's Arthur Frobisher, the coke-snorting, Enron-style villain of the first season, gets as much screen time as Tobin. It's as if an old villain had to be revived in order to maintain the audience's interest.

Hollywood is recycling lots of old villains as new, post-crisis heroes. The trailer for Oliver Stone's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps shows Michael Douglas's Gordon Gekko being released from jail in the present (but not without an empty money clip and his brick of a 1980s cell phone). Grizzled, shorn of status, and eager to repair severed family ties, Gekko is shocked to find that the greed he once celebrated now runs rampant and has become institutionalized. Nowadays he's supposed to be one of the good guys.

Money Never Sleeps is one of the few big-budget pieces of crisis culture (irony: Hollywood has been one of the casualties of the meltdown, since hedge funds had been funding production through so-called slate deals, in which films were, like mortgages, turned into structured financial products). But there's some more or less clever stuff done on the cheap. More: public radio's This American Life in April aired a hilarious two-minute show tune—written by Avenue Q co-creator Robert Lopez, about a hedge fund's bets against subprime mortgages—called "Bet Against the American Dream." Less: actors at Iceland's Reykjavik City Theatre recently began reading a 2,250-page report about the country's financial crisis. If you think it's tough to grasp this stuff in English, try it in Icelandic.

In these chastened, indie-budget times, why bother to invent new villains and storylines when old ones are essentially interchangeable? Adam Haslett's Union Atlantic, an engaging but not-too-ambitious novel about bank bailouts, is very much of the moment, even though Haslett said he wrote the first scenes in the wake of the Enron debacle.

Enron proves that you've got to add a lot of bells and whistles to enliven a story that is essentially about meetings and people pushing buttons on computer screens. There are dance routines, a musical number about commodity prices, a sketch involving light sabers, and plenty of other shtik: the board of directors are costumed as three blind mice, and actors with dinosaur heads eat debt fed to them by chief financial officer Andrew Fastow. In a closing scene, Skilling is confronted by employees at a funeral. He's disgraced, alone, uncomprehending—and yet we don't feel for him. There's only so much lipstick you can put on a greedy pig.

Daniel Gross is also the author of Dumb Money: How Our Greatest Financial Minds Bankrupted the Nation and Pop!: Why Bubbles Are Great For The Economy.

Bad Business = Good Entertainment | Culture