Margin Call

(2011) *** 1/2 R
109 min. Roadside Attractions. Director: J.C. Chandor. Cast: Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley.

/content/films/4245/1.jpgMovie critics love to trot out the term “stagy” to knock a film, but some of us consider that a compliment of sorts. And something tells me J.C. Chandor—writer-director of the economic-crisis thriller Margin Call—knows what I mean.

After all, stage plays have a better batting average than films when it comes to social consciousness, well-honed dialogue and considered themes, three hallmarks of Margin Call. Chandor sweeps away the media clutter over the 2009 market crash to give his own dramatization of a crucial twenty-four-period at a fictional Wall Street investment bank, MBS, most of the story unfolding within its glass-encircled high-rise offices.

The canary in the coal mine is the bank’s Risk Assessment & Management department, just gutted by a round of layoffs. Out with the trash goes the man running the department (Stanley Tucci’s Eric Dale), but he leaves some data in the hands of his young protégé Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), along with two ominous words: “Be careful.” Sullivan, who left rocket science for finance (“the money is considerably more attractive”), extracts an inescapable conclusion from the data: the bank will tank.

And so, after midnight, Peter summons high-placed exec Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), who in turn calls his boss Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), and soon everyone who still matters in the company (including characters played by Simon Baker, Demi Moore, and Aasif Mandvi), as well as at least one who doesn’t (Penn Badgley’s self-centered Seth Bregman), converges on a conference room at 2 a.m. to answer to CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons). The devilish details don’t so much matter (“Just speak to me in plain English” is a comical refrain); instead Margin Call consciously reflects on the bigger picture of high-stakes banking and its consequences.

In true “stagy” style, Chandor explores character and theme through razor-sharp monologues. With tongue in cheek, Will explains how a $2.5 million salary gets spent. Eric contrasts the intangibility of the numbers game with tightly held memories of having made a real difference as an engineer. And Kevin Spacey—an alumnus of the wicked business critique Glengarry Glen Ross—nails a series of speeches varyingly toeing or decrying the company line as he contemplates on which side he will (last?) stand regarding an ethically dubious “fire sale” of assets.

Part of the film’s distinctiveness in depicting a long dark night of the corporate soul comes in taking the individuals not only as archetypes but as individuals facing real choices in a high-pressure situation. The closest thing to a villain is the survival-minded CEO, a pragmatic Machiavelli of the board room, but it’s not so much any individual as big business itself that leaves little to no room for a principled stand. Chandor seems to agree with Ice-T: “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.”

In a faultless ensemble, Tucci and Spacey deserve special attention, the latter turning in his subtlest (and thereby, his most potent) work in years. Chandor’s social critique may or may not stand the test of time, but as all eyes turn to the “Occupy” movement, Margin Call is entirely right for this moment.

[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]

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