Saturday, December 24, 2011

MARGIN CALL: A Call To Action For the 99% ...?


Note: Margin Call received a limited theatrical release this past Fall, but was also released day-and-date digitally, and is currently available as a digital download, rental, or via video-on-demand.

- Want to be depressed? Then check out MARGIN CALL ... a bleak, soul-sapping look at some of the events that led to Wall Street's catastrophic meltdown a few years back. That's not to say that Margin Call isn't a well-done, smartly-written film. On the contrary, it has some very interesting things to say about the Wall Street culture that helped get the big banks into the sort of apocalyptic states that led to the crisis. But man, this movie offers a lot of cynicism and little in the way of hope - and it's all so straightforwardly presented that it almost feels like a docudrama, cooly chronicling our age of greed. This movie reinforced some of the anger I've felt towards the big banks in light of the collapse, but it also made me wonder if part of the problem is something larger and less tangible - a widespread plague of greed and moral bankruptcy. In any case, Margin Call feels like it sort of gets halfway towards making its point. It does a good job of identifying some of these broader problems, but seems content to stop there. There's no real twist, no other shoe that drops. That means that in my book, it lands as a good but not great film.

Certainly, this is a film that, if nothing else, can boast of a well-pedigreed and star-studded cast. Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgely, Paul Bettany, Stanley Tucci, and Demi Moore all turn in some great work, and help elevate a lot of the otherwise dreary boardroom scenes to occasional high drama. The direction, from J.C. Chandor, has a moody, into-the-night darkness, to some extent evoking classics like Glengarry Glenross. The entire film takes place over the course of one night and early morning, and so there is a sort of symbolic weightiness to the darkness. In some ways, these Wall Street bankers are like real-life vampires - sucking the "ordinary people" dry, okay with it, as long as they themselves survive. And that, they will say, is simply the natural order of things.

The story here is a relatively simple one, although it deals with an extraordinarily complex world that not even those involved in it day-to-day seem to fully understand. Oftentimes, characters in the film - like Jeremy Irons' head honcho - insist that the particulars of the problems facing his company are explained simply, in plain English. But that proves difficult. The loopholes that the banks used to bleed the public were labyrinthine, but it boils down to this: Iron's company is on the verge of going belly up - they're about to lose far more money than they're going to make, and the only option is to sell all holdings in a last-minute ploy to essentially liquidate - commit corporate suicide so as to have a slim chance of surviving - even if it means screwing everyone who they've unloaded their assets to under false pretenses.

Margin Call can be commended for painting all of its characters in varying shades of gray, but this also means that there are no real good guys here. Zachary Quinto is the young risk management analyst who sounds the alarm on the whole situation. We eventually find out that he's a rocket scientist who left for Wall Street for a bigger paycheck. His even younger colleague, played by Penn Badgely, is 23 and making a quarter of a million a year. He has no real vested interest in his work, but is oddly obsessed with the rat race and what others are making in his office. The most intriguing character here might be Paul Bettany as a middle-manager who, though he makes millions, has sort of seen through the whole sick joke of it all, and seems just a tad unbalanced because of it. Bettany does a great job here as a guy who sees all of this for what it is, but also finds himself lacking the will or conviction to really do anything about it. At least he has no pretensions of moral superiority, like Kevin Spacey's weary VP. Spacey voices all kinds of objections to Irons about the company's plans to liquidate, but ultimately, he's a survivor -a company man of 30+ years who knows when to be obedient, even if it costs him his soul. Stanley Tucci is also excellent as Quinto's boss, the man who started the risk management report that Quinto takes over after Tucci is unceremoniously laid off. Tucci seems glad in some ways to be free of the whole mess, but ultimately, he comes crawling back as a consultant rather than risk his severance package. Demi Moore is a corporate lawyer who's set up as a fall-guy for the whole implosion.

It's a sad, sorry group of individuals we're presented with in this film, with the sneering Irons presiding over everyone with a sinister, "let 'em burn" attitude. There are no heroes here, no rebels, and few voices of reason. Well, I suppose there *is* reason, but the reason presented by the likes of Irons - through dramatic monologuing - sounds more like the ravings of a megalomaniac supervillain than of a rational member of society. Margin Call isn't approving of these guys - on the contrary, it condemns them - but it does so in a manner that feels defeatist and, frankly, dramatically unsatisfying. Maybe there's a certain realism inherent in the all-encompassing coldness and sterility of this corporate hell, but the drama just isn't heightened enough to make an impression beyond a chill of recognition. I think of the aforementioned Glengarry Glenross, and its brilliant characters, dialogue, and pacing that heighten office drama to great theater. Margin Call lacks that same sort of intensity, and its characters all seem cut from the same overpriced, designer cloth.

Some standout performances help to make this one watchable and give it some meat, and the moody direction sets an appropriately ominous tone. But I just was left wanting something a little more from this movie. I wanted some sort of greater insight into the Wall Street meltdown, some better understanding of these people, of this system, of how all the pieces fit together. I wanted a story that went beyond the headlines. Margin Call takes a stab at the men behind the meltdown, but to me, it doesn't quite cut deep enough.

My Grade: B

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