[27 October 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Let’s face it - the moneymakers and the bean counters have made a massive mess of things. While protesters attempt to ‘occupy’ the seats of commerce worldwide and politicians apologize and excuse the lack of legitimate economic solutions, the men in those wobbly Wall Street towers continue capitalism like it’s a victimless game of chance. Of course, when the house of cards eventually falls (and it always does), the main victims remain the public. In this apologetic atmosphere comes Margin Call, a movie that’s about two years too late and several strong actors too many. While it offers up a compelling drama with equally energetic performances, the end results seems both overly simple and insanely complicated.
During the standard corporate downsizing which comes with a huge financial failure, senior adviser Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) is let go. His job was to monitor the risks being taken by the large investment banking firm and report them to the internal auditors, Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore) and Jared Cohen (Simon Baker). Upon leaving, he gives his findings to underling Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto). A brilliant mind with a true talent for numbers, the young man uncovers the truth behind Eric’s apprehension - the business is leveraged to the max, with a single sell off threatening complete collapse…and chaos. Bringing in seasoned veteran Sam Rodgers (Kevin Spacey), Peter joins with insider Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) to try and stall the inevitable. When that won’t work, they call in flashy CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) to see if he can save the day. His solution, however, may be even more painful than the company’s future prospects.
As a sprawling effort from first time feature filmmaker J. C. Candor, Margin Call is expansive and ambitious. It wants to turn the entire 2008 crisis into a single night in the life of a fictional financial institution. By using a make believe money maelstrom (though linked, in some ways, to what happened at noted house Lehman Brothers), Candor hopes to give audiences outside the struggle a clue as to what really occurred. It’s a conversational concussion of various facts and figures, all simultaneously clarifying and confusing the problem at hand. Unlike recent documentaries on the subject (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Inside Job, to name two), there’s no attempt to paint a perfectly clear picture. Candor can’t get from point A to point B without dragging at least two actors into the pathway and giving them their star time.
This makes Margin Call a bit messy. Without the stop-offs, the story is slight - incredibly important, but slight just the same. Indeed, at the core, we have a lingering warning over the near billion dollar deficit the company is facing, the risky move to try and avoid complete destruction, and the various power plays that go on within said strategizing. The movie, however, can’t help but focus on the last item. Bettany and Spacey are the architects of the cinematic stall tactic, their characters given over to “we’ve seen it all” speechifying when cutting to the chase would work a lot better. Irons is also guilty of being a languid addition to the mix. Instead of a spry, strong figure, he cuts a decidedly dry and discrete swath. In fact, only Tucci and Moore seem to understand the monumental mission inherent in the film. They play the emotions strong and upfront, letting their acting, not their reams of dialogue, underline the dilemma.
In fact, while watching Margin Call, one wonders what the exact point or purpose is. In the last three years since the banks needs bailing out, we’ve heard hundreds of stories similar to this. We’ve had the packaging of bad mortgages and the stock market style gaming on same explained several different ways. We’ve heard the horror stories about people losing everything and how the ones who created the crash have more or less walked away without any responsibility - legal or moral. In fact, the current protests are part of the still simmering rage on the part of many middle class Americans. So how is a movie that more or less argues for incompetency and getting away with it going to change things? Better yet, who is sitting in their almost-in-foreclosure home, desperate to make ends meet and angry at the lack of options, all while wanting to see a two hour dramatization as to why they’re barely living paycheck to paycheck?
In a sense, Margin Call is the preamble to Global Poverty for Dummies. It clamors for attention without ever once truly earning our notice. With a cast like this, the results are never actually boring. Instead, the performances act like placeholders until something more significant comes along. Of course, it never does, and by the time the credits roll, we realize we’ve been conned as well. This is not a bad movie, just a disjointed one. There are moments when we can’t help but get caught up in the turmoil, recognizing our own innate need for answers and explanations. But once we’ve been through this particular mill, ground down by rhetoric and wily Wall Street jargon, the outrage is dulled. Indeed, Margin Call makes the mistake of thinking knowledge is the key to concern…and anger. Instead, the viewer is merely exasperated.
It is often said that the big picture is built out of many smaller ones. It’s also said that scope mishandled can undermine the most noble ideals. In the case of Margin Call, we have an intriguing film that fails to make its own case, even as it entertains with interesting actors and their various performance choices. There must be an intrinsic reason why a subject like this stalls as cinema. Even someone as gifted as Oliver Stone couldn’t make it work very well. As a newcomer, Candor can be forgiven for biting off a bit more than he could legitimately chew. You won’t dislike his movie as much as scratch your head over it. It has the makings of a fine, fascinating experience. Unfortunately, it never finds a way to be wholly compelling.