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Margin Call

Director: J.C. Chandor
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgely, Simon Baker, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci

(Before the Door Pictures, Benaroya Pictures, Washington Square Films, Margin Call, Sakonnet Capital Partners; US DVD: 20 Dec 2011)

Audiences are avoiding all real world issues at the movie theaters these days. Be it because they need a distraction from their unusually rocky day-to-day lives, or merely a lack of important and entertaining fare at the theaters, nothing seems to be catching hold. Whether it’s covering Wall Street, 9/11, war, or all three, films of such serious topics aren’t making money here in the States.


Stars aren’t helping, either. Michael Douglas and Shia Lebeouf couldn’t save Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps from an underwhelming $52 million domestic tally. The almighty Tom Hanks and box office queen Sandra Bullock haven’t been able to overcome the early admonishment of the 9/11 drama Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close—it’s made only $351,000 after nine days in limited release. Even The Hurt Locker managed just more than $17 million, and it won the Academy Award for Best Picture two years ago.


I don’t know how these films manage to keep finding financing, but here we are again with another darkly topical movie, another all star cast, and another box office bomb. Margin Call is a slickly told semi-fictional story of an investment bank’s demise on the night before Wall Street’s collapse. Told from the various perspectives of its employees, first time feature writer and director J.C. Chandor uses these varyingly influential power players to depict different levels of panic.


We start at the bottom with Peter (Zachary Quinto, also a producer on the film) and Seth (Penn Badgely) as they watch their coworkers get laid off. Most prominently for them is the dismissal of their boss, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), the head of risk management and Peter’s mentor. Just before he leaves the building, Eric hands Peter a flash drive with a project he didn’t have time to finish. “Be careful,” he ominously states as the elevator doors slide shut.


Why did Eric have to say anything? Peter, who was already depicted as extremely loyal and trusting to his boss, would have worked on the project no matter what. Margin Call is packed with minor obtuse moments like these that ruin what could have been subtlely powerful references. Three men stand at the top of the company’s skyscraper. One looks towards the bottom and quips, “It’s a long way down.” Kevin Spacey’s character, department head Sam Rogers, reacts by talking about his sick dog when he’s first told the bank may be at risk. The dog’s health worsens with the company’s downfall.


In the film’s most captivating and cloying scene, Eric Dale mourns the loss of useful business practices by rattling off incalculable statistics about a bridge he helped build many years prior. Yes, Dale’s expertise and intelligence are made clear by his impossibly fast mental math. Yes, the story is relevant and one we believe Dale would tell at the time he does. Yet it still comes off as preachy. I don’t think you could find any average citizens who would come out in support of big banks these days, but Chandor seems enamored with the lack of morals found in the institutions’ leaders. I doubt anyone is as shocked as Chandor by greedy people doing anything to make a buck.


That said, Margin Call largely overcomes its first-time writer’s flaws through quick, efficient pacing, striking visuals, and fine performances from its tremendous cast. The film is flat out entertaining, and I say that as someone who knows next to nothing about Wall Street. Chandor manages to boil down the story to something everyone can understand. Even if it’s too dumbed-down for some, there’s still plenty to latch onto and enjoy (an odd adjective to use here, I know).


The acting MVP has to go to Tucci. Even in a limited role, he finds a way to become the most captivating person in every single scene. And that’s with Jeremy Irons chewing up a lot of scenery and Kevin Spacey getting the meat of the moral outrage. Paul Bettany continues to make us question how he never made it to the A-list, while the younger crowd shows considerable promise for their own ability to move up the Hollywood ladder.


Considering Margin Call only scraped up $5 million from its theatrical run, the DVD carries a considerable amount of special features. Chandor shows up for a feature commentary track, while the rest of the cast pops in throughout a behind-the-scenes doc, a gag reel, and two deleted scenes. The nixed takes were cut for good reason—the first is excessive and the second repetitive. The doc is pretty much standard fare, but I always appreciate when all the actors in an ensemble like this one come forward for interviews.


Two juicy bits come to light in “Revolving Door: Making Margin Call”. It turns out J.C. Chandor’s father worked as a trader for Merrill Lynch, making the director’s debut a much more personal undertaking than I would have guessed. We also learn how this surefire flop gained financing: Zachary Quinto used his Heroes and Star Trek money to back it. I admire the confidence, but hope he’s still got some left.

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Ben Travers is an awards season analyst and prognosticator with a devout interest in all things film & TV. Mr. Travers lives in Los Angeles as an experienced writer and filmmaker with an extensive portfolio of coverage, including thorough reporting on the Academy Awards, weekly box office reports, and more reviews written than will ever be read. He is a graduate of the University of Iowa with degrees in both journalism and cinema.


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(Margin Call) has the makings of a fine, fascinating experience. Unfortunately, it never finds a way to be wholly compelling.
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