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Review: 'Margin Call' A Compelling 24-Hour Slice Of The Start Of The Economic Collapse

Photo of Kevin Jagernauth By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist October 20, 2011 at 3:15AM

The following is a reprint of our review from Cannes.
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The following is a reprint of our review from Cannes.

At one point during "Margin Call," the topper of an investment firm, played by Jeremy Irons, says that "money is just money" and that we put faces on paper and give it a value so we don't all kill each other just to get something to eat. And there's a crude, curious poetry about that. But the curious thing about it is, once we have some, we want more. Capitalism, if nothing, fuels ambition and the recent state of our economy has shown that ambition mutated into greed, which gave in to recklessness, resulting in blood running down Wall Street, bailouts, regrets and perhaps most worrying of all, no real change in how we do business. The recent economic crisis has become a popular cinematic subject and it's easy to see why. It's topical certainly, but there is a tremendous human story here too about how the chase for everyone's piece of the American dream led to the mess we're in today.

Yes, it's a whole lot to chew on but for the purposes of "Margin Call," the film zeroes in on 24 hours during the death throes of a fictional investment company on the cusp of the mortgage default crisis which tipped the first domino and began sending the financial world into a tailspin. As the film opens, one of the execs Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) has been laid off after 10 years of service with company. He gets a modest package, and is unceremoniously told to pack his things up so he can be escorted out of the building. Stunned, Eric resignedly takes the offer, but before he leaves he hands off a USB key to a young protege, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), with a number-crunching project he's been working on that he hasn't quite been able to finish. "Be careful," Eric tells him as the the elevator doors close, but those two words are hardly a salve for what will happen next.


Eric's cryptic words prompt Peter to stay late one night and see what it's all about, and it isn't long before he sees what Eric was driving at. And it's not good. We'll spare you all the technical mumbo jumbo and reduce it down to this: the firm's investment in high-risk, long-term mortgages hasn't really been monitored and according to the projection Eric put together, based on past history (on which much of the Wall Street numbers are based), the company is headed for a devastating downward spiral, and if the numbers are right, they are already on that path. At worst, the losses could potentially be bigger than the worth of the company. Defcon 1 is declared and all the heads of the company are called together that same night to hash it out in the boardroom.

There's Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), closing in on 35 years with the company; there's direct underling Will Emerson (Paul Bettany); risk fund manager Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore); and Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley), a buddy of Peter's at the firm (their onscreen chemistry, relationship and back-and-forth quipping is one of the highlights of the film). And then there is the big gun, John Tuld (played by Irons). They all meet in the wee hours of the morning to try and figure first if the numbers and projects are accurate (they quickly realize they are), and next to figure out what to do before the next trading day starts because it's only matter of time before competitors and clients figure out how dire their books are. Mild accusations are thrown around about who didn't do whose job in order to see this coming, but as John says, it's all spilt milk under the bridge now. It's time to move forward and the solution is to put their own necks in the noose and spend the entire next trading period selling off their bad, valueless assets to willing investors thereby destroying their goodwill and starting a chain reaction within the industry. But once this is decided, the film's real fun begins.

Another round of layoffs to appease investors is pretty much guaranteed to be around the corner, and as Sam tells his staff, very few will be spared. But if the traders can dump 93% of the stock by end of day -- and if the entire team does it -- they stand to take home bonuses of over $3 million. Not a bad way to walk away from the job. All this detailed financial talk is kept pretty easy to understand, as writer and director J.C. Chandor is more focused on the systemic causes of it all. As the film argues, people buying homes they knew they couldn't afford got the ball rolling, but on the other hand, investment firms who turned a blind eye to obviously poor investments had no one but themselves to blame when it came back to bite them in the ass. Money management is something everyone needs to do but no one does, and late in the picture one of the execs who is pulling in tens of millions a year simply says he stays on the job because even he, with all his wealth, still needs the money. And as Will explains to Seth, his own salary of $2.5 million tends to go out of his hands very, very fast. While these guys are quick to blame regular Americans for being fiscally irresponsible, they're blind or just hypocritical about their own shortcomings.

Nothing about "Margin Call" is especially groundbreaking. The film is shot slightly better than your average cable television drama, and set largely in an office building, so don't expect any dazzling visuals. Instead, just enjoy a nice ensemble of actors coming together and doing some solid work. "Margin Call" isn't the most unique picture to hit screens but it's damn compelling to watch. Though you probably kinda know the motions that every firm on Wall Street went though before the whole thing fell flat, it's still staggering to watch it here, as guys earning tens of millions of dollars per year seem to have no idea what goes on at their own company. At one point, John tells Peter (who was schooled to be a rocket scientist but took to Wall Street because it offered his math skills much better money) to explain the situation to him as if he were a child or a dog. Frightening.

Adequately lensed and boasting a pretty nice little score by Nathan Larson (ex-Shudder To Think), "Margin Call" would actually make a good double bill with HBO's "Too Big To Fail." "Margin Call" would go first, showing how the collapse of a pretty lucrative little investment scheme rises floor to floor, person to person, over the course of 24 hours. This would be followed by Hanson's equally solid film about how that eventually gets to the corridors of Washington and eventually, to the public at large. Simply put -- and to use a terrible pun -- "Margin Call" is a worthy investment. [B]

This article is related to: Films, Review, Margin Call


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