Getting the Memo, by Matt Warren
Writer and director J.C. Chandor’s debut feature Margin Call is a film neatly divided into two parts. I liked one part, and one part I didn’t. Together, they chronicle the dawn of the 2008 financial crisis from the point-of-view of the greedy, do-nothing Wall Street motherfuckers who got us all into this mess in the first place. That, at least, would be the conventional viewpoint taken by most folks, not least of all the Occupy Wall Street protesters currently drawing media attention all across the world. Of course, the actual causes behind the recession are a lot more complicated, with plenty of irresponsibility, naiveté, and culpability to go around.
Frankly, I’m not equipped to evaluate the film in political terms, which is why I’m relieved that Margin Call eschews partisanship and instead focuses on the processes of large-scale economic failure. Specifically, it tries to pinpoint exactly when the economic crisis began, and how. Reread that: not why—but how. When did become apparent that the mortgage industry was a precarious house of cards finally about to waver? How was this addressed and evaluated by powerful men? And when did it finally sink in that we were all deeply, deeply fucked? Chandor imagines what the answers might be, but his film isn’t always successful. Margin Call is a tasteful, affect-less docudrama in the vein of All the President’s Men and Shattered Glass, but it lacks the basic elements of character and suspense that make those other films so much fun to watch. The film’s structure is unique, but I suspect Chandor’s screenplay was probably much more engaging as a written entertainment than his film is to watch.
Margin Call follows one 24-hour period in the life a large, unnamed Wall Street investment bank “loosely modeled on Lehman Brothers” (thanks Wikipedia!). Co-producer Zachery Quinto plays a low-on-the-totem-pole risk analysis expert with a background in rocket science from MIT. His boss Stanley Tucci is laid off, and on his way out the door, hands the young Mr. Spock a flash drive and advises him to “be careful.” Spock pops it in, and though we don’t get to see what he’s looking at the pained look on his Vulcan mug lets us know that whatever it is, it’s some serious shit. Quinto then floats the drive upstairs to supervisor Paul Bettany, who takes one look, makes a “who farted?” face, and immediately passes it on to Kevin Spacey, the firm’s head of trading. Spacey passes it up the company org chart to Simon Baker, and, ultimately, Jeremy Irons in a fetching silver power mullet as, basically, the Mayor of Capitalism.
This is the part of the film that doesn’t work so well. I frankly don’t buy that there’s some sort of magical Excel spreadsheet that everyone at this company could look at, comprehensively interpret, and definitively conclude means bad fucking news. It seems ridiculous. Then again, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this is exactly how it all actually went down. Real life is fucked up like that sometimes. But it would help if the info wasn’t kept so vague. Chandor clearly doesn’t trust the audience to keep up all the complex financial industry jargon, and he’s probably right. I don’t know anything about “historic risk variances” or whatever, but it would still add verisimilitude to hear these people discuss the problem in detail, even if those details are completely incomprehensible to dumbshits like me. Plus, it doesn’t help that the whole repeating “guy shows his boss a thing” leitmotif becomes inadvertently comedic after a while; it’s almost like a big-screen adaptation of the old “Mr. Show” sketch “Change for a Dollar.”
But the film finds balance during its second half, when—no spoilers here—big decisions are made and everyone must come to terms with what he or she must do to move forward. At this point the film becomes an effective, multi-pronged character study. It all works quite well, helped along by some very strong acting and writing. The performances are excellent across the board, with the notable exception of Demi Moore as the firm’s hatchet man, whose performance really puts the “titty” back in “shitty.” Tucci and Spacey are especially good in mature, intelligent, sympathetic performances, and the sight of Spacey as a beleaguered sales manager is an effective, if obvious, quote of Glengarry Glen Ross.
Is Margin Call worth your increasingly hard-earned dollars? Hard to say, but if the subject matter interests you, you might find it interesting, or at least edifying. I give it a solid two and a half breadlines out of four.