The only thing iffier than investing in Wall Street is investing in a movie about the Street’s unscrupulous risk-takers, who deviously picked our pockets during the 2008 financial crisis and then had the gull to seek a bailout from tapped-out taxpayers.
The only thing iffier than investing in Wall Street is investing in a movie about the Street’s unscrupulous risk-takers, who deviously picked our pockets during the 2008 financial crisis and then had the gull to seek a bailout from tapped-out taxpayers. Yet in the case of the boardroom thriller “Margin Call,” it’s hard to resist laying cash on blue-chippers like Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons and Paul Bettany as they act out a compelling scenario in which greed goes from good to morally complex.
Yes, in the thoroughly lived-in world of writer-director J.C. Chandor the paper-shuffling charlatans actually have minute traces of a conscience, as they feverishly rush to save their house-of-cards brokerage by deceitfully passing the firm’s toxic mortgages onto their loyal customers. Not the best way to win friends and influence people, but Chandor’s resistance to demonize his predatory characters pays off in an insightful examination of the evil that men, and the firm’s lone female executive (Demi Moore), do when they back themselves into a billion-dollar corner from which there is no escape.
You hang on every word of Chandor’s expletive-filled dialogue, too, as he taps into his inner David Mamet by giving us a sort of Wall Street version of “Glengarry Glen Ross” in which the weak are whisked aside and the alpha dogs stick around long enough to fill their pockets with millions of other people’s money. It’s both funny and unsettling to watch, but what gets to you is the amount of empathy the movie extracts for its array of misguided characters, from entry-level underlings like Penn Badgley’s Seth and Zachery Quinto’s Peter, all the way up to Iron’s intimidating, yet utterly clueless, CEO, John Tuld.
They, along with middle-mangers deftly portrayed by Spacey, Bettany, Moore and Simon Baker, come together during one highly eventful night high above the bright, twinkling lights of Manhattan, where towering skyscrapers effectively represent how far down it is to the gutter. Which is the spot where they are all about to land unless they liquidate every toxic mortgage before the end of that day’s business.
What’s fascinating isn’t so much the trip down, but the peeks afforded inside the corporate strata, where yes men and quasi-mavericks like Spacey’s Sam Rogers fight to maintain their place on the food chain while wrestling with the knowledge that what they are about to do will result in the financial ruin of millions of innocent people. And you fret right along with them, as Chandor establishes a level of realism so intense you feel like the proverbial fly on the wall. And he sustains it throughout by resisting the temptation to resort to histrionics and melodrama.
For some, such an even keel of emotions may prove boring. And it might have been if the story weren’t so rich in subtext, be it Quinto’s Peter passing up a career in rocket science because the money was better on Wall Street, to Iron’s blustery CEO being so ignorant of his company’s operations that he asks that his minions explain to him what went wrong in terms a child can comprehend. Or, even better, a priceless scene aboard an elevator in which Moore and Baker discuss the impending meltdown oblivious to the fact that a lowly cleaning woman is standing directly between them. Such compassion!
By far, the best part of “Margin Call” is the star-studded cast, which boasts some of the finest work in years by Spacey, Moore and Irons. But the performances that stick with you are those by the young guns, Badgley, Qunito and Bettany, who spend much of the movie discussing how much money their superiors make despite doing the least amount of work. But who has time to work when you’re regularly dropping Benjamins on high-priced hookers and exotic sports cars? If there’s a downside to “Margin Call,” it’s some of the overlap it shares with superior films like “Up in the Air” and “The Company Men,” both of which did a better job of illustrating the sad state of our faltering economy. Yet you wouldn’t trade one scene in which Stanley Tucci appears, playing a risk analyst the company axes just hours before the bigwigs realize they need him most. It provides more than a few cathartic moments for peons who dream about the day they can gain the upper hand on their incompetent bosses.
It also provides an iota of comeuppance for the higher-ups even though we know they all will prevail in the end at the expense of the little guys. Sure, it’s not the most satisfying of endings, but it is the most tangible for a film that strives strenuously for realism. And therein lays the reason to take stock in “Margin Call,” as it makes us privy to the shortcomings of the financial industry and the dubious people trusted to run it. Even more than money, they are the root of all evil.
MARGIN CALL (R for language.) Cast includes Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Paul Bettany, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci and Penn Badgley. Written and directed by J.C. Chandor. 3.5 stars out of 4.