It’s the movie everyone’s talking about: The story of a nation sucked in by a deal too good to be true. Huge short-term gains followed by a stunning fall. And a solution that requires the architects of the disaster to step back in and pick up the pieces.
No, not Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story, which skewers Wall Street and the free-market economy for creating an epic real-estate boom and bust.
It's the animated surprise hit Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (in 3-D!), whose cartoon characters—coming to the big screen one year after the fall of Lehman—end up telling us more about the perils of unchecked economic growth than do all the real people in Moore’s documentary.
In the same way Americans got used to using their houses as ATMs, the bug-eyed candy-colored islanders treat their homes as a never-ending pasta bowl.
Now in its third week atop the box office, the movie tells the story of Swallow Falls—"a tiny island hidden under the A in Atlantic"—which built its livelihood on the now-dwindling sardine industry. In need of a financial jolt, the nation looks to a young inventor named Flint Lockwood, who creates an amazingly complex device that turns ordinary water into food.
After the machine takes off like a rocket, the sky starts raining food, and everyone gorges on a new diet of everything under the sun. Hamburgers, spaghetti, and of course, meatballs—whatever the people crave. But it isn’t long before the machine goes into overdrive and the food grows to enormous proportions. Pancakes the size of Toyotas are followed by hot dogs as long as telephone poles.
I can’t imagine that directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller ever thought their movie—based on the children’s book by Judi Barrett—would be confused with something you might see on CNBC. But all you have to do is substitute subprime mortgages for macaroni and cheese—and well, you get the idea. This family flick is the ultimate parable of a world reeling from the sugar-shock of cheap loans and easy money.
Just as in the U.S. circa 2006, the people of Swallow Falls (quickly renamed “Chew and Swallow”) rapidly become addicted to their new windfall. In the same way Americans got used to using their houses as ATMs, the bug-eyed candy-colored islanders treat their homes as a never-ending pasta bowl. Everything gets a fresh coat of paint; big new buildings go up. Soon the cheerleading press arrives, followed by global consumers hungry for a piece of the action.
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs is an object lesson in fear and greed. Lockwood just wants to make a name (and fortune) for himself in something other than his father’s tackle shop. He’s afraid of missing out on the next big thing. The greedy mayor channels Angelo Mozilo, the now-disgraced former CEO of Countrywide Financial, constantly downplaying any risk. In the end, there is a shortage of caution, an oversupply of food, and a mess that will take years to clean up.
Oddly, Michael Moore’s move is more simplistic than the cartoon. He doesn’t take on the American homebuyers who binged on oversize mortgages. Instead, he solely blames a corrupt system fed by Wall Street and enabled by regulators. The irony of these two films is that the one that sets out to be the official history of the financial crisis ends up a mess of clichés, complete with Moore’s tired “take me to your leader” bullhorn act. It’s the children’s story about the dangers of too much of a good thing which captures the true essence of the subprime disaster.
At the end of his film, Moore says he’s fed up with the state of America but not willing to leave for, say, Venezuela. While it’s hard to imagine his idea of socialism working here, or even in Swallow Falls, I’d be curious to see him repair to a tiny island under the A in Atlantic and give his solution a shot.
Jonathan Wald is a former senior vice president at CNBC as well as a former executive producer of Today and NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw . He is an adjunct professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University in New York.