J.C. Chandor's directorial debut Margin Call is an under-the-radar boardroom thriller about the 2008 financial crisis. In a sense it's the movie version of Inside Job, and having arrived 3 years after the crisis hit, isn't it a little late to the party? Not really, for Margin Call's real victory lies in it's examination of the corporate psyche, a phenomenon relevant at all times, whether in the depths of a recession or at the pinnacle of prosperity. The film stars Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany, Zachary Quinto, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci, Simon Baker and Penn Badgeley, and opens in South Africa tomorrow (Friday 13 January 2012). Hit the jump for a review.
On the eve of the 2008 financial crisis, various employees of a New York investment bank grapple over potential solutions after a junior analyst figures out that the shit is about to hit the fan. Those involved represent a neat cross section of the typical corporate demographic. Seth Bregman (Penn Badgely from Easy A) is the baby junior analyst, bright eyed and busy tailed, and not yet appreciating the magnitude of the issues at play; Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), one level up, is a dedicated and ingenius analyst who changed careers from physics to banking, and who first uncovered the impending crisis; Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), a senior fixed income salesman, has started earning the money and is a little more jaded than the juniors (he sees prostitutes already); Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), is head of sales and a weary executive who has allowed the brutality of corporate life to sufficiently ruin his private life; Jared Cohen (Simon Baker), the head of securities, is younger and more tenacious than Rogers, and is (was) quite possibly on his way to the top; and finally CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), one of the rare few who made it to the summit, a sly and nefarious lion not dissimilar to Irons' character Scar from the Lion King. Two other characters (portrayed by Demi Moore and Stanley Tucci) fill out the story. I will not elaborate.
In essence then, Peter Sullivan figures out there is a problem, and as the gravity of the situation becomes clearer, the level of executive involvement escalates (in the abovementioned pecking order). Eventually, the most efficient and immoral form of damage control is the one they adopt: selling off the worthless assets before the rest of the world notice. When the crisis hits, their careers would be over, but the firm would not be bankrupt.
The film works marvelously in two ways, and not so marvelously in another. The dialogue is sharp and the pacing brisk, commanding your attention from start to finish. Also, the manner in which the large firm dynamic is portrayed is spot on, and easily the strongest element of the film. Director JC Chandor's father worked at Merryll Lynch for 30 years, and I won't be surpised if he received a number of helpful tips. It's amazing to see how the mind's preoccupation, social detachment and borderline sociapathy varies according to seniority, and how a character like Seth Bregman could eventually evolve into a John Tuld.
Where Margin Call doesn't work all that well is in tackling the subject matter of the financial crisis itself. Unfortunately, there isn't much a writer can do to resolve this, and JC Chandor probably struck the right balance despite ending up in an uncomfortable middle ground. The characters are constantly engaging one another over the issues, and financial jargon is bandied about like there's no tomorrow, resulting in dialogue that is often cryptic and occasionally difficult to follow. Despite that, I could not help but feel that matters were beeing oversimplified. It's a Catch 22: increase realism and complexity, and nobody will understand; simplify, and it will seem dumbed down. In this sense, Margin Call is ultimately hamstrung by it's own subject matter.
Should you see it? Yes. If you put Kevin Spacey in a room with Stanley Tucci and Jeremy Irons, even the worst result is going to be watchable. Add to that great performances from the rest of the cast (especially Zachary Quinto and Paul Bettany), and a well written script, the result is pretty damn entertaining cinema.
7 out of 10