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New Directors Film Festival: ‘Margin Call’ sure to intrigue and entertain

“Margin Call will illuminate questions about a precarious economy and is sure to intrigue and entertain moviegoers everywhere.”

Margin Call

Directed by J.C. Chandor

Written by J.C. Chandor

USA, 2011

As the stock market looms on the precipice of collapse, a prestigious investment firm, whose practices are partly responsible for the imminent crisis, fires the one man (Stanley Tucci) who sees the catastrophe coming.  However, the junior analyst, played by Zachary Quinto, inherits his former boss’s work manages to decipher its patterns in time to realize the firm only has about 24 hours before they face financial ruin.  What follows is a scramble to find the man responsible for these ominous projections, save whatever shreds of the company can be saved, and make some critical and morally complex decisions that will determine what kind of business will emerge from the ashes if the firm can survive the downfall.

In the pantheon of similar finance-related fare, the unique thing about Margin Call is its delicate handling of moral complexities.  It is not a straightforward treatise on greed or an attack against Wall Street.  The business strategies batted around in the top-floor conference rooms might make a strict moralist sigh, but they also make good sense.  This is Darwinism at its most modern.  Have you ever cringed when a character in a movie said, “It’s nothing personal.  It’s just business”?  Basically, that’s the whole point behind this movie, and all things considered, it’s hard to fault its characters for adhering to this policy.  Ultimately everyone in the film reaches the same uncomfortable conclusion: the firm can only survive the impending meltdown if it sells all its holdings, knowing full well that whoever acquires them will be purchasing worthless commodities.  Only one long-standing employee of the firm, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), is righteous and indignant enough to speak out against the unfairness of this approach, but even he can’t offer another option.  Literally, it is do or die for the company.

While the exposition can sometimes feel heavy handed and certainly repetitive, writer/director J.C. Chandor shrewdly manages to avoid condescending to his audience by requiring that the characters most in need of explanation be among the firm’s highest ranking members.  One of the best and most amusing moments comes when CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons’ spectacular contribution to the film) admits to a roomful of his subordinates that he did not achieve his wealth and power with smarts.  Which begs the question how did he achieve it?  Luck?  Possibly. Ambition? A little of that, surely, but more likely he earned the big chair because of a capacity for making the kind of dispassionate and sometimes ruthless decisions that this situation calls for, the kind of decisions that one can assume drive the treacherous stock market.

One thing Margin Call definitely has going for it is the benefit of a star-powered ensemble of talent, boasting names like Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci, Jeremy Irons, and Paul Bettany, among others. Chandor’s script smartly distributes its quirky one-liners and demonstrative monologues to provide the bulk of its cast equal occasion to impress.  What the script lacks, however, is much genuine insight on the interior lives of its characters.  An incidental side story involving Sam Roger’s dying dog is easily forgettable and doesn’t give his dilemma the extra dramatic weight the writer/director likely intended it to.  Also, the audience is given to understand that Sarah Robertson, Demi Moore’s character, is frosty and cutthroat but that she eventually comes to regret this pattern of behavior.  Unfortunately, the script squanders two excellent opportunities to demonstrate those qualities when she twice encounters the man she supposedly helped get fired.  Even though more emotion could likely have been mined from moments like these, they do not pass by without generating at least some sympathy for the victims of the fallout.  Perhaps the script is carefully calculated to force viewers to think as the investment bankers have to and consider the unfortunate situation as a whole first and focus only minimally on the individuals who become its casualties.

No one emerges a hero in this story.  Everyone loses something, whether it is a job, a principle, or even the years devoted to a heartless investment firm that could have been spent making a family.  Margin Call’s material may be bleak and frustrating at times for all the ethical ambiguities, but never once is it dry.  There is no shortage of tension or conflict.  The script is thoughtful and provocative, and the performances are as remarkable as you would expect from such a collection of celebrated names.  Paul Bettany almost single-handedly supplies the movie its comic relief with several well-timed wisecracks and observations, and when one of the film’s few moments of pure pathos falls in the lap of comparatively young actor Penn Badgley, he handles it with the ease of a veteran. Margin Call will illuminate questions about a precarious economy and is sure to intrigue and entertain moviegoers everywhere.

Kenneth Broadway