Margin Call: A Financial Crisis Film Collides With The Zeitgeist

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JoJo Whilden / Roadside Attractions / AP

Zachary Quinto, left, and Penn Badgley are shown in a scene from Margin Call.

There’s a big cineplex a few blocks away from lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park. Should Margin Call open there this weekend, the Occupy Wall Street protesters might consider marching over for a reminder of what it is they’re inveighing about. A damning look at contemporary Wall Street that takes place during a single, crisis-filled day at a fictional investment bank, the film reaffirms the 99 percent crowd’s reasons for being disgusted with the financial sector rapaciousness.

But Margin Call is unlikely to spur any new outrage among the OWS bunch. Whereas last year’s documentary Inside Job had a jazzy, insistent energy to it that propelled viewers to feel even more infuriated over its already anger-inducing content, Margin Call is smart, but too cool and solemn to raise anyone’s temperature. Nonetheless, writer/director J. C. Chandor should count himself the luckiest man in show business this weekend. How many first-time feature filmmakers can truthfully claim that their movie collided right up against the zeitgeist?

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High in a skyscraper, two of an unnamed firm’s risk analysts—Peter Sullivan (Star Trek’s Zachary Quinto) and Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley)—stand watch as various colleagues get laid off. Boss Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) is on edge; he knows his own superior, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), is about to get Up in the Air-ed. After it happens, as Eric is escorted from the building, he passes Peter a memory stick and a warning—on it is something big.

This narrative setup pits the two young men against each other—brains and insight versus cocky, entitled complacency. Peter went to MIT and is a numbers guy. That memory stick is just as enticing to him as a night at a fancy strip joint is for 23 year-old Seth, who feels less urgent about the information. (The indolent Seth’s main function in the office seems to be gathering information about the salaries of others; he’s a right little stinker.) Peter continues Eric’s research and finds the company has just begun to operate below a safe margin, thanks to trading in over valued commodities.

He is paraded in and out of dim offices and dreary conference rooms (far more realistic-feeling than the usual posh and shiny cinematic boardrooms) to explain the dilemma to increasingly superior superiors. As Peter goes up the chain, Chandor’s screenplay doesn’t hold, as much as squeeze, the viewer’s hand along the way. Almost everyone from snide head trader Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) to CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons, delivering just the right combination of silky and slimy), is made to ask for the simple version. No one understands any of this economic mumbo jumbo except for Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore, believably brittle as a buttoned-up career woman), who requires no tutorial; she’d played Cassandra a year before, only to be ordered to lighten up.

I’m fine with Chandor’s portrayal of these bankers as salesmen rather than great economic thinkers and with his portrayal of an industry-wide hubris that allows everyone to think themselves invincible. (While eating breakfast off white china, John ticks off a list for Sam of all the previous crises Wall Street has survived.) But all the simplifying means the viewer doesn’t learn much about what’s actually going on. I felt over-served on the layman’s terms but still under nourished. The tone of the dialogue—delivered in something akin to Mamet-speak—is static, a feeling of deadened sensation compounded by the stale office atmosphere. It’s no wonder that any time a character goes out for a cigarette it’s a relief; at least on the street there is life and noise.

Margin Call might have lost me completely if it weren’t for Spacey (last seen portraying a less interesting evil boss in Horrible Bosses) who delivers his meatiest, most nuanced work in years. It’s obvious Peter is a good guy—he’ll probably join the Peace Corps after this. Sam is more of a cipher. His eyes moisten for his dying dog and stay dry for his distressed and fired colleagues. Business is business. But as the firm’s proposed solution—dishonorable, short-sighted and depressingly plausible—becomes more of a certainty, even stoic Sam is shaken by the thought of losing the good name he’s earned over three decades with the firm. Spacey conveys Sam’s terrible disquiet and resignation as he begins to realize the foundation is crumbling from under him. He’s enough of a pillar to survive, but he’ll stand in rubble. For him, the thrill is gone. He’d never head to Zuccotti Park himself, but he might see their point.

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