Reviewer: Craig Phillips
Rating (out of five): *** 1/2
First-time writer/director J.C. Chandor wrote the Margin Call script as the real life financial crisis was happening in late 2008, when he himself was in a bit of a career and financial panic, and the final film reflects this feeling. Unlike a lot of films on the subject, even ones that purport to criticize (paging Oliver Stone), Margin Call doesn't romanticize Wall Street, and it also doesn't overtly moralize or even judge.
There are a few too many speeches toward the denouement perhaps, and suffers from a bit of staginess, but ultimately does a fine job portraying all the players here as merely human -- and all the vices that entails. While it doesn't have the gleeful histrionics of a David Mamet script (to which this setting and ensemble may remind you), it is less pretentious and more grounded, too.
As Chandor himself has said, the film's intimate scale is due in part to necessity; he needed to tell this grand story in a more limited way given a small budget. The investment house in the film, modeled, it would seem, after Lehman Brothers, serves as the main set, other than a few brief tangents, and the money was spent on the excellent cast and in honing an appropriately moody, blueish look.
Zachary Quinto, known best at this point as the new Spock, seems to rival Adam Scott in deadpan-furrowed-brow reaction shots as he plays the "outsider" role here, a risk analyst who has a Ph.D. in physics and seems at times to not belong among his greedier colleagues, including his eager young cohort (Penn Badgley) who takes the company's inevitable fall much more to heart.
The scenery is, not surprisingly, mostly chewed by Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons, the former as Quinto's boss and basically the bearer of bad news, and the latter as the CEO who arrives on the scene in the middle of the night in a manner reminiscent of Mr. Burns. Irons' dapper boss, more than anyone else in the film, seems to represent the callous "1%," who have lived high on the fat for so long they know no other way, and who sees this crisis as a passing dark cloud. He believes there "are three ways to make a living in this business: be first, be smarter, or cheat."
Demi Moore, the lone female in power in this old (and young) boys' network, does some of her stronger work in years, as her seemingly cold-hearted executive who may have to take the fall shows a vulnerable side as her world crumbles overnight. Stanley Tucci also gives the film its other moral center, such as it is, as a deposed analyst who saw this coming--right when he was laid off.
This is a film about both disillusionment, and delusionment--people convinced themselves that what they are doing is productive and positive--and some of the black comedy comes in how it depicts both the hierarchy of the staff and how the higher ups seem to live in denial of reality or facts, the more protected they are.
Margin Call is truly a movie of the moment, but I suspect, despite some flawed dramatics, it will serve well as a historical document, too. Whether anyone will learn from the story it depicts will be to be determined, but the odds are -- if most of the characters in this story are a good indication -- that change is still a long way away.
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