In a movie industry that is increasingly demanding more spectacle than intelligence, Margin Call isn’t a film you expect to see on a big screen. It seems more like a TV special that wins awards but no one actually sees.
Having said that, Margin Call deals with a subject that another pair of hands could have been treated like a sequel to Wall Street. Margin Call tells the story of twenty four hours in the life of an investment firm that makes a horrifying discovery in 2008 that the whole financial system is about to collapse before their eyes. After several meetings through the night, the big investment bankers decide to perform what is called a margin call, in other words sell their entire bad stock as quickly as possible, fully aware that it will destroy all the companies that buy from them.
With that in mind, it’s hard to see how you can sympathise with the main characters, but the genius of the script by J.C. Chandor (who also directs) is that we actually do care. We care about who gets fired and who doesn’t, and it may be the only film about Wall Street where you actually want the bankers to succeed. A slightly cynical trader Will Emerson, played sublimely by Paul Bettany, gives a speech about why the bankers are right and that “ordinary people” are wrong, in a way that actually makes you think he has a point.
Paul Bettany isn’t the only bright spark here. Kevin Spacey gives the best performance of the film as head trader Sam Rogers, with superb support from Stanley Tucci, Zachary Qunito, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, and Simon Baker whose performance has been surprisingly ignored. Everyone gets their big entrance scene where they have the commanding presence as the man (or woman) in charge as news of the impending collapse spreads, until the news reaches John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), who gives a great performance as the commanding and almost vamperic boss.
The script is where the real strength of this movie lies. The stock market and the nature of its demise in 2008 is a very convoluted and difficult subject to grasp, something expertly dealt with by J.C. Chandor. When things get a little too complicated for a layman to understand, one of the high ranking execs ask to have it broken down to them in “plain English”, or as Jeremy Irons’ character puts it, “talk to me like I’m a small child, or a Labrador”. The fact that most of the people at the top don’t seem to know the first thing about the stock market is a running gag used throughout the entire film.
J.C. Chandor is a first time writer director, so naturally there are points where the film falters. Kevin Spacey’s B-story involving his dying dog is a little too clear an attempt to make him seem like a sympathetic character, and Stanley Tucci’s speech about the bridge he built in the 80s goes on a lot longer than is needed; he’s good with numbers, we get it. In the very capable hands of Spacey, Tucci, and the rest of the cast though the film still stays strong through these setbacks. We spend most of our time moving from room to room, and it doesn’t exactly move at an expeditious pace, but the intelligent script makes this a gripping, grown-up movie, the kind of which we really could do with seeing more of.
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Video reproduced from YouTube / trailers
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