Friday, January 6, 2012

A Company on the Verge of a Breakdown: MARGIN CALL

The entirety of J.C. Chandor’s debut feature Margin Call plays like the first act of a disaster movie, the moments when the experts slowly become aware that things are about to go very wrong, that the world of the film is about to explode. In this case, the disaster is all too real, has already occurred, and we’re still living in its aftermath. Set in the fall of 2008, the film takes place over 24 hours in a big financial firm as one analyst figures out just how bad things are going to get. The shocking truth he discovers is that risky bets on mortgage-backed securities and the like are about to come up for big losses. The company is over leveraged. The decisions that are made this night will mean the difference between the life and death of the company, of its workers’ and their families’ finances, and probably for the entire American economy, if not the world’s. Sound familiar?

The film starts with a fired risk analyst (Stanley Tucci) giving a flash drive to one of his youngish employees (Zachary Quinto). It contains the formulas that predict impending devastation, the keys to understanding the suddenly very real possibility of complete and total financial ruin for the firm. He passes this information along to his boss (Paul Bettany), who passes it along to his boss (Kevin Spacey), who gives it to analysts (Demi Moore and Aasif Mandvi), who give it to their boss (Simon Baker), who calls in the CEO (Jeremy Irons). It’s an all-star cast (or a close-enough approximation of all-star) ready and waiting for the disaster to strike, repetitively going over their options and weighing consequences. They can see it coming, they can try and slow its approach, but this thing is going to hit and hit hard.

Chandor fills the film with tense boardroom scenes and jargon-filled power plays, along with brief moments that play almost like asides, sketching themes too concretely. At one point, during a rooftop smoke break, one suit actually peers over the edge and says, “It’s a long way down.” What this screenplay could have used was characters who were more than just symbols and with more bluntly clever macho Mametian rat race rat-a-tat in their dialogue. (Paddy Chayefsky and Aaron Sorkin are further good examples of the kind of character-driven satirical spark technical talk can sometimes have). The actors – most of them pretty great – are ready to sink their teeth into meatier roles than are provided.

This is a film that tries to create characters that are understandable, relatable even, in a film that looks to find empathy but not excuses. It gets there, but it’s all so heavy handed. I believed these actors were the kinds of serious suits who would soberly and gravely use bursts of business speak to tersely and tensely discuss risky financial deals. What I didn’t believe were the moments like the ones when Bettany gives a remorseless little monologue about how people say they want a fair world but “nobody actually wants that,” when Tucci trots out a wistful bridge-building anecdote to make the point that Wall Street produces nothing of tangible value, or when Spacey reveals he has a symbolically significant dying dog at home. The small details of the film are so convincing – the jargon, the drab gray production design, and the simple modern costumes – but the words spoken are so often flat that, try as I might, I simply couldn’t believe the big picture.

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