Review: ‘Margin Call’
2. The film begins with an anonymous man (Stanley Tucci) at an anonymous corporation being laid off by anonymous bureaucrats. As tends to happen, he's escorted out of the building before he can finish any of his work, so as he's leaving, he hands a file to a protege (Zachary Quinto, who produced the film and is terrific in it) and said, "There's something wrong here. Look out." Quinto looks into it and discovers that the firm is over-leveraged to the point that it might go bankrupt any minute. This attracts the attention of the brass, from his immediate boss (Paul Bettany) to his middle boss (Kevin Spacey) to, ultimately, the big dog head of the firm, played by Irons as if the air were full of delicious ham he could gleefully chew through for hours. (In a good way.) What's interesting is that Tucci doesn't discover something corrupt; he just discovers a mistake, and the firm must decide whether or not to destroy the rest of Wall Street (and, this movie argues, the rest of us) to save themselves. This is not a story about Wall Street; it's one about this specific firm. At first this seems like a strategic mistake on the part of the film. After all, so what about this fake firm? But then Irons starts talking about the cyclical nature of all this, and how we're all just actors on a stage, and then we realize that "Margin Call" is about something deeper: It's about the rot inside the money everywhere.
3. The film is not nearly as smooth as I'd like it to be. There are some storytelling issues here: The layoff that starts all this off is distracting and ultimately unexplained. You keep waiting for the movie to tell us why such an important player was laid off, and it never does; it just wants to show us someone getting laid off and how cold the company is about it, but, frankly, that's the least of the firm's sins. (Getting laid off or fired sucks, but, you know, it happens to everybody at some point.) There's a couple of red herrings like this, that feel less like red herrings and more like stray threads that should have been clipped; I'm still not quite sure what Paul Bettany's character is supposed to be about, or why he insists on chewing gum (obnoxiously) throughout the whole film. And as character sketches, a lot of these folks are thin; Demi Moore and Simon Baker are bickering middle managers, and I'm still not quite sure why they're bickering. (It doesn't help that they're the two weakest actors in the film.) This is writer/director J.C. Chandor's first film, and it shows. You could clip two or three characters and drop a healthy 20 minutes from the running time too; someone should have done so for him. (The ending could use some work too.)