Sure to be drowned out by the drum circles at Occupy Wall Street, writer-director J.C. Chandor’s lifeless Margin Call depicts roughly 36 hours at an unnamed Manhattan investment firm at the dawn of the 2008 financial freak-out. Chandor’s debut feature audaciously asks us to empathize with obscenely overpaid risk analysts and their bosses, a gambit that fails not only because of what’s 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 CIGNA’s) 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 company’s 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 don’t remember the headlines from the fall of 2008—or don’t have bank accounts—Tuld’s directive is recapitulated by Spacey’s unconvincingly indignant remark to the executive: “You’re 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 hell—released in theaters three years after the fact and against the roar of the real-life “99 percent” protesting across the country—seems 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. “I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe. They don’t 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 ’em—fuck normal people”), conveying not so much the intended master-of-the-universe arrogance as Chandor’s 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, Spacey’s Sam, fail. First seen weeping at his desk over his ailing chocolate Lab—“I’m spending a $1,000 a day just trying to keep her alive”—Sam sheds no tears for the 80 percent of his staff just fired. When Sam stands up to John in the film’s final scenes, Spacey’s 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 movie’s last heavy-handed episode—digging a grave, the sounds of burrowing continuing over the closing credits—Sam creates a hole as big as the one at the center of this movie.