Monday, November 14, 2011

Margin Call

With the wirey intensity of a thriller, a nicely nuanced sense of Mamet-inspired wordplay and an honest indictment of the realities of the beginning of recession-era American economics, Margin Call comes out the gates, perhaps a few years too late, but a nicely stinging piece of work.  Set at a powerful investment firm at the break of the impending financial crisis, first time writer\director J.C. Chandor creates a terse, forward moving all night wake up call for his characters and the country, with very rich men (and women) at it's center, beginners and veterans all scrambling and fearing the worst.  That the film is for the most part free of right or left wing speechifying, over-the-top histrionics or the slightest bit of judgement on its characters makes it all the more richer and absorbing.  That the film is essentially about faulty number crunching, wherein characters exclaim, "Say it in English" makes it urgent and accessible.  That it features singularly strong performances from a generous group of actors makes it a small, but undeniably potent chamber piece of  contemporary American independent cinema.

The film starts before the music, so to speak, as ended, with a massive corporate overhaul.  Incoming imposing suits with pink slips and an ultra-serious demeanor.  The first sequence, which already makes one antsy, is strong because it's intimidating and cold-- the first to be canned is Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), a risk management corporate player with many years to his credit; the scene is so terse that he has to be explained when while being canned when the firer is being apologetic.  The problem is Eric has been crunching numbers and discovered a flaw in booking which he passes on to his protege Peter (Zachary Quinto), with the crypt message to be careful.  The bigger problem, which Peter resolves, is that essentially the music is over, and the company, and perhaps the market itself is headed to certain doom; that the coin is worthless.  It gets bigger and bigger and Peter's boss, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) takes it to his boss, Jared Cohen (Simon Baker) to the man in charge, John Tuld (Jeremy Irons.)  As the numbers reveal almost certain doom, Margin Call becomes the Dazed & Confused for the Wall Street set.  Set over the course of a very nerve-racking 24 hours.  As the fate of the company and the men (and few women-- mostly just Demi Moore) are unraveled, the most remarkable part of Margin Call is the distilled dignity and, gasp, sense of consciousness from its characters.  It's hardly the type of film to point fingers, nor proclaim all Wall Street folks as uncaring monsters.

Not that everyone gets off easily...again Demi Moore comes into play, but it's that inquisitive morality that makes Margin Call a better and more unsettling film than one might expect set around a rich boys club.  Again the performances are the biggest sell, working with a solid, but sometimes meandering screenplay.  Quinto (who also produced the film) still has the bushy brow and pronunciation of a young-Spock, but underlines that with an intelligence and grasp of what's at stake, while keeping in stock his own future.  Tucci is quietly commanding, while office mate Paul Bettany (as a charismatic, sometimes morally shifty bloke) nails the ambivalence of middle management type, secretly scared out of his wits.  It's Spacey, however-- he of such infamous Glengarry Glen Ross fame that's most striking in his quiet (for him) and almost graceful humanity. Even the shiftier moments of Margin Call come with a pain-staking understanding of the rules at hand-- some will get thrown under the bus, others lose their livelihoods, others guided toward higher grounds-- and that very notion, while sickening and unsettling marks a tone of integrity to the story, just as the realistic mood of the film, that even while everything is crumbling, some will survive, some will not, and all of that has more to do with politics than actual merits.

In short, Margin Call is essentially the movie that Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, the misguided recession-era sequel of last year, should have been.  B

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