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Review: ‘Margin Call’

The Projector

1. On the whole, in a macro sense, "Margin Call" doesn't have much to do with our current economic crisis, because it can't: It's fictional. After seeing "Too Big To Fail" -- which stuck to the real-life details of the September 2008 bank meltdown, with an even more impressive cast -- it can feel a little empty to watch a pretend company (modeled after Lehman Brothers, I'd guess) go through the same meltdown themselves. Like, who cares? We went through this already; it really happened. This is how I felt for the first half hour of "Margin Call." It felt like an actor's exercise, a stagey, flabbier, "updated" version of "Glengarry Glen Ross," with young traders acting like tough guys while the world collapses around them. And then Jeremy Irons showed up, and "Margin Call" becomes something much more than that: It sort of turns into an indictment of everything, one that's more sadly helpless than angry.

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.)

4. That doesn't change just how riveting much of "Margin Call' is, because, impressively, Chandor is able to tie the excesses and greed that caused the economic collapse to happen to the day-to-day drudgery and dead corporatism of office life. These people didn't ruin the economy because they hated poor people or were trying to make their yacht just a little bit bigger. They ruined the economy because, just like the rest of us, they were trying to win tiny little battles in their offices, they were trying to save their pride, they were caught up in the regular daily rigmarole that's larger than all of us and we're all sort of powerless to exist. It's worth noting that Tucci's whistleblower isn't a whistleblower at all; he was happy at his job and, when he has the opportunity to take down the company's malfeasance, he takes a payoff instead because, hey, I just bought a nice new house. The movie is sympathetic to him too; he is far from seen as a sellout. These are just regular people trying to succeed in their fields the way the rest of us try to succeed in ours; the difference is that theirs is far more lucrative ... and far more destructive if misplayed. Irons has a breathtaking scene at the end of the film when he tells Spacey, essentially, "hey, this is just what happens every 10 years or so: We blow up the whole economy because that's the way the system is set up. It's bigger than both of us." He's absolutely right, and that's what so scary. "Margin Call" is clunky in spots, but it nails this detail -- these are just guys doing jobs and making rational decisions for themselves and their families, not that any of that makes it right -- better than any film about the financial crisis I've seen.

5. On a pure moviegoing level, apart from what it has to say about the economic crisis, "Margin Call" provides us ample opportunities to just watch great actors act. The cast is huge, and other than Moore, Baker and Penn Badgley in a supporting part, everyone's excellent. The movie keeps letting the actors bounce off each other, one-on-one: To rank the pairings, I'll go with Irons-Spacey, Bettany-Tucci, Irons-Quinto, but honestly, the movie just gives everybody plenty of room to play. It's a little talky, sure, and there are a couple too many "these people make way too much money, America!" moments that are right on the nose. But "Margin Call" gets the little details right, the way bosses forget the names of their employees often twice in the same conversation, the way everyone always feels like they're one bad week away from being homeless, the way you can have a conversation with a colleague with the cleaning lady standing in between you and no one will ever even acknowledge that she's there. It understands that corporations like the one in this movie are offices like everyone else's ... only they control everything on the planet. Imagine the inefficiency of your office having the safety of the planet's economic future in its hands, every day. That's horrifying. And that's what "Margin Call" is about.

Grade: B