November 2, 2011
The recession is becoming the new Iraq for Hollywood. It hasn’t taken as long for people to get in gear to deal with it (everyone agrees that Wall Street acted irresponsibly) but the results have so far followed a similar route. Overdone dramas with Tommy Lee Jones (In the Valley of Elahi, The Company Men), the reduction of complex issues to fall into standard Hollywood fare (Green Zone, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps), HBO films based on non-fiction books (Generation Kill, Too Big to Fail), and Charles Ferguson documentaries that put everything else to shame (No End in Sight, Inside Job). J.C. Chandor’s indie Margin Call isn’t the probing character study that The Hurt Locker was, but neither is it a tedious autodidactic lecture a la Lions for Lambs. To labour the analogy beyond its limits, it’s closest to a Stop-Loss, only significantly more entertaining.
Taking place in about a 24 hour period at an investment firm modeled on Lehman Brothers, Margin Call has a significant cast moving around a number of rooms discovering, discussing, and dealing with the fallout of dubious mortgage-backed securities practices that will likely bring down both the firm and the market. It begins with a mass firing of brokers, which at first one might assume indicates some knowledge of events to come from the men upstairs but might actually just be an utterly cruel motivation tool for those left standing. One of the sacked employees, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), had been working on a project with some disturbing figures. He hands his work to his protégé, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), who spends the evening finishing the project. After discovering dangerous irregularities, he calls in his new boss, Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), and from here it takes on the tone of a thriller as the information moves up the chain to the top of the company, John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), and they must determine the course of action.
“Correct” is an especially subjective word in this context. Facing catastrophic losses, the choice comes between burning every customer in your books, dumping the toxic assets, and hoping the firm lives to fight another day. That would also mean infecting the market with their rot. This is a fairly simplistic version of what really happened – in reality, so many firms were overleveraged and holding these bad assets that some sort of collapse was inevitable – and if you want a more in-depth, accurate look at what happened with the 2008 crash, the aforementioned Inside Job is a good place to start. The reduction works here for narrative purposes, both moving the story briskly along while limiting the amount of technical exposition. In fact, one of the minor joys of the film is the way they shoehorn in what exposition is necessary by having the bosses almost completely ignorant of how they make their money (“Explain it to me like I’m a golden retriever!” Tuld intones). The culture of making money based on little practical knowledge and, especially, no concrete product, is a running theme through the film.
Despite the swathes of criticisms the film lays against the Wall Street culture, there aren’t really any cartoonish villains – though Tuld and Simon Baker’s Jared Cohen – to create an obvious good broker versus bad broker dichotomy. They’re not all bad people, but they’re all essentially compromised by their business and the reason they invariably entered into it: the money. Sullivan is literally a rocket scientist (he got his PhD at Penn), and his former boss Dale was once an engineer, both readily admitting they moved into the business for the pay. Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), a thirty-odd year veteran of the company, displays the most amount of moral distress, but even he is hemmed in by financial obligations. One of the film’s best moments comes from Emerson’s matter-of-fact explanation of how easy it is to spend $1.25 million in a year. It’s a credit to the film that it never really reduces anyone to a cliché capitalist pig-dog, nor does it portray the actual act of stock brokering in the exciting fashion so common in films of this ilk. The old adage about war films never being anti-war because battle will inevitably look exciting to some degree could be applied to Wall Street films, from Boiler Room’s climactic coup to the short-selling sequences in both of Oliver Stone’s entries. There is none of that in Margin Call, which even eschews most of the lifestyle-porn associated with huge earners. It’s essentially about men (and one woman) in an office making decisions with far-reaching consequences.
The downside to this somewhat minimalist (both in setting and timeline) approach is that it has a tendency to explain the moral viewpoints of the situation and its characters in long, occasionally awkward monologues. Emerson explains his callous demeanour with a speech about their job’s significance to everyday lives, Dale explains his engineering past and its rewarding practicality with a long digression about a bridge he once built, Tuld explains how this has happened before and how it will happen again because that’s the Way Of Things, and so on and so forth. The dialogue itself isn’t particularly good, often coming off as sub-Sorkin speechifying and somewhat lazy. The only reason the film isn’t dead in the water time and time again is due to the actors’ performances, especially Tucci, Spacey, and Bettany, who manage to give the words a measure of credibility by convincing us they’re coming from real characters. Other actors are less successful, with Irons pulling an amusing but somewhat tired amoral honesty routine, and the less said about Demi Moore the better (she has a big scene with Tucci towards the end, most – if not all – of which is edited as singles, as though putting them in the same frame would overpower her).
Indeed, Chandor’s belief in the weight of his subject, huge though it may be, threatens to crush the entire film. It’s not straightforwardly preachy in a Lions for Lambs sort of way, but it is clumsily executed. The acting – especially Spacey, giving the best performance I’ve seen from him in years – manages to save Margin Call from falling into an abyss of tedious self-indulgence. Chandor and his editor, Pete Beaudreau, keep it at quick enough pace that it never feels as stuck in the mud as it might have been, if you’ll excuse my mixing of metaphors. This is by no means the defining fictional film of the crisis, but it’s a decent enough one. Given America’s recent history with current issue films, that’s not bad.