Too Late to Succeed: Dramatizing the Financial Crisis in Margin Call
Sure to be drowned out by the drum circles at Occupy Wall Street, writer-director J.C. Chandors lifeless Margin Call depicts roughly 36 hours at an unnamed Manhattan investment firm at the dawn of the 2008 financial freak-out. Chandors debut feature audaciously asks us to empathize with obscenely overpaid risk analysts and their bosses, a gambit that fails not only because of whats happening at Zuccotti Park, but largely because his characters are little more than mouthpieces for blunt speechifying and Mamet-like outbursts.
After the first of many time-lapse shots of the New York skyline, 80 percent of the risk-management team at the anonymous 107-year-old company (whose tree logo resembles CIGNAs) are axed, their termination announced by the same HR cyborgs familiar from Up in the Air and The Company Men. One of those let go is Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci); before the elevator doors close, he hands a USB drive to underling Peter (Zachary Quinto), warning him to be careful. The junior associate takes a look at the files after-hours, plugs in some numbers, and realizes, much to his horror, that the companys assets will soon be worthless. Higher-ups are summoned back to the office, including just-promoted Will (Paul Bettany) and his boss, Sam (Kevin Spacey), who meet at 2 a.m. with their warring superiors, played by Simon Baker and Demi Moore. An hour later, as in a star-studded episode of Fantasy Island, Jeremy Irons arrives by helicopter, playing reptilian CEO John Tuld (turd plus Fuld?), to demand that the firm unload its toxic assets. For those who dont remember the headlines from the fall of 2008or don't have bank accountsTulds directive is recapitulated by Spaceys unconvincingly indignant remark to the executive: Youre selling something you know has no value.
Margin Call, which premiered at Sundance in January, suffers from a deflated sense of timeliness; its thin origin story about how the economy went to hellreleased in theaters three years after the fact and against the roar of the real-life 99 percent protesting across the countryseems like an out-of-touch, unconvincing exercise in hand-wringing. Speak as you might to a young child or a golden retriever, John says to Peter, asking the young analyst to simply break down complex financial mumbo jumbo. Yet many of the other characters talk in the same way, explicating the already self-evident. Ive seen things you wouldnt believe. They dont lose, Will, a 10-year veteran of the firm pulling in $2.5 million a year (a large chunk of which he spends on hookers), announces to Peter and his colleague Seth (Penn Badgley) during a rooftop smoke break, breaking the news to the lads that, yes, rapacious capitalists like money.
Trying to butch up a script droopy with ersatz outrage, Chandor punctuates the dialogue with four-letter imperatives. Fuck me and Fuck you are constantly repeated (along with Fuck emfuck normal people), conveying not so much the intended master-of-the-universe arrogance as Chandors shaky dramatic-writing skills. (Also frequently uttered: What time is it?)
Unlike The Company Men, which successfully explored the moral conscience and despair of its corporate titans and middle managers, Margin Call's bids for sympathy for its most conflicted character, Spaceys Sam, fail. First seen weeping at his desk over his ailing chocolate LabIm spending a $1,000 a day just trying to keep her aliveSam sheds no tears for the 80 percent of his staff just fired. When Sam stands up to John in the films final scenes, Spaceys own inability not to sound smug with every line he delivers further undermines the idea that his character is a decent guy. Carrying out the movies last heavy-handed episodedigging a grave, the sounds of burrowing continuing over the closing creditsSam creates a hole as big as the one at the center of this movie.
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