Review: Margin Call

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With the Occupy Wall Street movement dominating the news, it’s easy to see Margin Call, written and directed by J.C. Chandor, as timely. But this film is really more elemental than current events. Though set on Wall Street, with the prospect of economic collapse as the force driving the plot, the film is better seen as a character study of men (and one woman) compartmentalizing themselves and losing their souls in the process.

The film begins with a focus on two junior employees in the risk management department, Zachary Quinto and Penn Badgley. They witness a massive layoff on their floor that includes their boss, Stanley Tucci. Following him to the elevators, Quinto is emotional, but Tucci shrugs him off and instead gives him a thumb-drive with a project he’d been working on. Quinto investigates into the night and discovers something that imperils the firm’s existence.

Quinto calls back Badgley and their superior, Paul Bettany. For the rest of the night Quinto’s discovery is kicked up the chain, to Kevin Spacey, head of sales, to Demi Moore, head of risk management, then Simon Baker, head of securities. The import of what’s happening is so great that something needs to be done before the market opens, so the firm’s CEO, Jeremy Irons, arrives like some god in a helicopter.

As to what the crisis is, Chandor takes great pains to try to explain it. In fact, three times characters ask to have it explained to them in “English.” Irons, finally, asks Quinto to explain it to him as if he “were a small child, or a golden retriever.” Basically, the firm has included, in bundled securities, assets that exceed their volatility measures. If the stock drops by a certain amount, the firm is so leveraged that the loss will exceed the capital value of the company. I’m not even sure of what I’ve just written, but I don’t think it’s important to understand the nuts and bolts of it. What’s important to know is that the firm is in danger of complete destruction.

Irons’ solution is to sell off the toxic asset in a fire sale, even at a loss, knowing that he will endanger the firm’s trustworthiness and throw the market into turmoil. His only concern is getting out with his skin, unconcerned with what it does to the little guy. Spacey, who has worked for the firm for 34 years, has reservations, but Irons responds with a speech that one-ups Michael Douglas’ “greed” speech in Wall Street. “It’s just money, it’s all made up, it’s pieces of paper with pictures on them, so we can get something to eat without killing each other.” Irons says that ups and downs in the economy are part of some sort of natural cycle, and if people are put out of business, oh well.

This is an astonishingly self-assured debut by Chandor. In some ways it reminded me of Glengarry Glen Ross, in that is has a stagey quality (it could have been, with some minor tweaks, a play) but also because of it’s “lift the rock” look at the way things work in America. These are the people who control our lives, but they are people, and they make mistakes.

The acting is uniformly excellent. Badgley and Quinto are both very good (Quinto is one of the producers). Badgeley is the guy who wonders how much money everyone is making, while Quinto is literally a rocket science who has been wooed by the promise of big money. Bettany is a survivor, cogniscent of his own flaws (he pointedly chews Nicoret through most of the film), and Spacey is remarkable as the conscience of the film. Spacey has been coasting since his best work of the ’90s, usually being the Christmas ham in any film he’s in, and usually playing some kind of villain, best exemplified by his recent role in Horrible Bosses. But here he plays a fully rounded character, toning down his knowledge of his own wonderfulness as an actor.

Chandor also shows a good eye for images. I was particularly impressed with a scene between Baker and Moore in an elevator. In between them stands a diminutive cleaning woman, but they are largely oblivious of her and she of them, sort of like how these Wall Street folks don’t care that what they do affects the little guy. The cleaning crew, in fact, are the only appearances that “regular” people make in the film. When Quinto, Badgley, and Bettany go to the roof of the building to look out over the city, they don’t see the people down below, just the lights. The film ends with a character literally digging a hole, and as the screen goes black and the credits roll, the digging can still be heard.

One thing that did not ring true: Tucci is escorted out of the building by security after his layoff, his computer and cell phone shut off. There’s no way he would be able to hand a thumb-drive to Quinto without security confiscating it. Of course, without that, there’s no movie.

My grade for Margin Call: A-.

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

6 responses »

  1. Abso-frickin’-lutely.
    Glad you liked it as much as I did.
    Awesome review.
    I want to watch again just for Jeremy Irons. His speeches are amazing.
    I never thought about the thumb drive thing. I guess you’re right, it just never occurred to me.
    I actually kinda really love the end scene and I actually really love how Spacey And McDonnell play it. Two really great actors closing the movie.

  2. Yes, I suppose he could have, but he didn’t. He said, right in front of the security guard, that he was working on something and handed a drive to him, in plain sight.

  3. Saw this the other week and can only agree with the consensus here and from critics – exceptional film that would go to the top of my 2011 list of movies.

    What I appreciated most was how it avoided the easy stereotyping of the ‘bad guys’ like Irons character in one-dimensional monsters – by showing them realistically and convincingly it enabled the impact of this to be much more deeply-felt and how it doesn’t lie primarily with bad individuals, but a system that forces them to act that way.

    Performances were uniformally excellent, although my favourite was Jeremy Irons, who was just terrific (in part for the reasons I cited above about characterisation). Would’ve loved to have seen an entire film based around him.

    Films like this just make what seemed not-bad films on the same topic like ‘Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps’ seem look worse through their contrivances and short-cuts.

    There were some minor flaws in the film – I’d agree with JS above that the scene where Tucci hands over the file seemed a bit odd, and a later scene where one of the central characters is crying seemed not to ring true.

    But those are very minor things on what is a top-class effort

    Rating: A-

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