4 stars (out of five)
Margin Call takes place over the course of one night,
the night in 2008 when Wall Street came undone. It focuses on a small group of
people at one company. Someone has discovered the very bad things the company
has been doing. The information will become public tomorrow. What to do, what
to do? Scramble, hold high-level meetings, make speeches and do more bad
The cast is
impressive, including Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto,
Penn Badgley, Simon Baker, Mary McDonnell, Demi Moore and Stanley Tucci.
Everybody is very good, but Spacey and Moore stand out. Spacey because his
character takes some turns that Kevin Spacey characters don't usually take.
Moore because she takes her relatively small part and makes a big impression
writer-director J.C. Chandor has crafted a surprisingly effective drama. I know
next to nothing about economics, but I was held rapt. The basics are explained,
mostly because higher-ups in the company ask the young guns to explain it to
them. The device works because we believe that the executives are that clueless
about the particulars of their own business. They occupy positions of power and
privilege - other people are paid to work out the details.
There are numerous
instances of powerful individuals pointing out their ignorance and their
character defects. Such behavior may be read as bold and direct, but what
they're really doing is beating other people to the punch. By declaring their
ignorance and flaws, they minimize the chance of being confronted by those
around them. It's a credible tactic, and it's certainly helpful for viewers
like me. Their faux soul-bearing allows Chandor to provide us with a map of
Titanic to keep us oriented.
With its small
group of characters, limited use of music and numerous instances of
speechifying, the film skirts the edge of staginess. But those elements are
appropriate to the situation, and Chandor uses lots of cool-blue footage of
late night New York to keep the movie from folding in on itself. For the most
part, he also does a good job of keeping the melodrama in check. Yes, there are
speeches and dramatic exchanges, but they feel organic to the characters.
moments. Kevin Spacey's character has a dog. It makes it easy to humanize him,
sure, but Chandor also gets some keenly ironic moments observing the
relationship between the man and his pooch. Then there's the ledge scene, where
one of the men gazes below and says, "It's a long way down." It could be argued
that this is the one moment where the film crosses over into "Oliver Stone" land.
I think the scene works - barely. Given the restraint Chandor shows through the
rest of the film, I kind of got a kick out of the cheese.
Margin Call is a well-crafted economic disaster movie.
It's a low-budget Titanic, with the
financial system as the boat, and the characters as both the ship's crew and
the iceberg. Or something like that. As previously noted, I don't know
diddly-squat about economics.