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Margin Call (2011)

October 25, 2011

written by: J. C. Chandor
produced by: Robert Ogden Barnum, Michael Benayora, Newal Dodson, Joe Jenkes, Corey Moosa & Zachary Quinto
directed by: J.C. Chandor
rating: R (for language)
runtime: 107 min.
U.S. release date: October 21, 2011 (also available On Demand and iTunes)
Congratulations to those at Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions responsible for putting together an intriguing trailer that is better than the movie it promotes. That’s right, the trailer for “Margin Call” is a considerable attention-grabber, whereas the film, about the 2008 financial collapse, had me smacking the snooze button a handful of times. Maybe I should sue.
This feature debut from writer/director J. C. Chandor is set during an excruciatingly long 24-hour period at a prestigious Big Apple investment firm. There is notable tension in the air as almost half the employees receive pink slips by a group of visiting suits. Watching all this go down is Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), who will be revealed to be a brainiac, and Seth Bregman (Penn Badgely), a young colleague who seems to have mastered that deer-in-headlights look. Both of them are told by a nearby supervisor, Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) to go about their business, as if their own heads weren’t next on the chopping block. Something big is certainly going down.
When exiting risk-management exec, Eric Dale (a great Stanley Tucci) hands over a flash-drive to Peter, he advises, “be careful” and suggests his protegé finish what he started. Peter does just that and after verifying data, discovers that an inevitable and unavoidable crash is fast approaching. This information gets passed on to Will’s boss, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey, for once, not such a horrible boss) who sees no other option but to go upward with such dire news. In no time a group of slick talking heads, including arrogant executive Jared Cohen (an unbearable Simon Baker) and icy analyst Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore, dead on arrival), join the corporate fray, as does John Tuld (Jeremy Irons, fitting effortlessly into corporate villainy), the big wig Brit in charge of them all, to round table a solution to their sinking ship.


Since we know what’s happening before they do, because we’ve seen this true life tragedy covered ad nauseum, 24/7 over the past three years, what transpires is tediously boring. We know what will happen to this Lehman Brothers-esque company and the unethical decisions that undoubtedly will be made. Because none of the subject matter is newly discovered by the audience, it’s hard to get worked up or absorbed in it all, even with a unecessarily pulsing score by Nathan Larson.
What could rescue such a dull narrative (which brazenly aims for Mamet, but fails miserably) is the cast. Just look at them. One would think this could work, but this is a great example of how a trio of acting stalwarts as Irons, Tucci, and Spacey still can’t make up for the serviceable, mostly flat, acting around that surrounds them. All three of these actors deliver some great monologues, but it almost seems like a stage reading or like they’ve been edited into a movie that wants to matter. There is a lack of tangible substance here, which neither Bettany’s present earnestness or Quinto’s immaculate eyebrows can fulfill. Ultimately, Chandor just doesn’t provide these characters with any real emotional stakes to bite into (an exception is the juicy steak Iron’s character slices into while siting on top of the world, but that’s a different stake), which leaves viewers wanting. 
“Margin Call” isn’t the first and won’t be the last financial crisis movie. We’re bound to see more, so tread carefully. Do your math and access your risks before subjecting yourself to another dramatization of what you already know….or just rewatch “Inside Job”.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 6, 2012 1:58 am

    I actually thought it built up momentum as it went along. For me it seemed like an inside look into a soulless profession. I can see why it got an Oscar nomination for best screenplay and nothing else, though. I didn’t pick up on the “aims for Mamet”, though I can imagine how the director’s inexperience coupled with a mostly male cast of shrewd business-types could make the film seem Mamet-like to some. In addition to the 3 actors David liked, I think Paul Bettany also brought his character to life.

    • David J. Fowlie permalink*
      February 7, 2012 12:31 pm

      Indeed, Bettany did provide some solid work here. It may have built momentum, but I was still bored and at no time did I have any investment in the characters, even though some of them were interesting and well-acted.


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