Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Mar 07, 2011 1:10 pm 
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A cooler drama of financial meltdown

Margin Call is a dark, elegant-looking, well-acted and very focused film that takes a more realistic look at Wall Street's 2008 crash. Sometimes you may wish for more fantasy, for the glitz and drama of Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko. Or for the drive and desperation of Ben Affleck and Giovanni Ribisi in Boiler Room. J. C. Chandor's feature film debut, which he also wrote, has a real sense of atmosphere, but not quite such a good sense of how to tell a story. You would think a moment so climactic and urgent would fuel a movie of great suspense. Instead there are longeurs, and a sense of slow wind-down, a giving up. The Variety review calls it "methodical, coolly absorbing." But the cool gets in the way of the absorbing sometimes.

But there is commentary. This is clearly a world of men only pretending to know something (and this is realistic, we have to believe) when they barely have a clue. The highest officer on the sales floor can't read charts on screens, and the CEO asks the explainer of what's gone wrong to "Speak to me as you would a small child, or a golden retriever." Too believable. Margin Call has been described as a thriller but also a comedy. Things would be desperate if they weren't so pathetic, tragic if they weren't so tinged with stupidity and greed. You'd weep for these people if so many of them were not reptiles. These are smart people but they're not fully using their brains or their moral sense because their eyes are on the money.

Details have been freely altered but the unnamed setting is a firm like Lehman Brothers. It's a kind of vast gilded glass-bound cage with beautiful faraway views of Manhattan. A couple of employees go on a fast early morning drive to Brooklyn Heights, but otherwise for 36 hours hardly anybody leaves the building.

The action is simple. Heads roll aplenty, but that happens all the time. This time it's different because it emerges that for the past two weeks (and really a long time before that) the firm's holdings have become so shaky that it's going to go under. (It's credit default swaps and the real estate crisis that are bringing down the store values, but such details are not delineated.) The decision is made to dump all the firm's mortgage securities in a single day for whatever they can get on a dollar per sale as the day wears on. It's the end of the firm and the first big step in the end-of-2008 financial meltdown.

Chandor gets things going through a risk manager Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) who's part of a sudden purge. As he's escorted out of the building he presses a flash drive upon one of his underlings. It's something he was in the middle of, he says, that looks very important. "Be careful." The underling, Sullivan (Zachary Quinto, the new Spock in Star Trek and a producer of this film), who along with a star trader, Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) and his pal Seth (Penn Badgley), is among those not let go that day, stays in the office till late at night completing Eric Dale's research. He calls back Seth and Sullivan and Will, and they call in Will's boss Jared Cohen (Simon Baker), and when the information has been dumbed down enough for all to understand they call upon the CEO himself, John Tuld (Jeremy Irons). They must bring back Eric Dale, but in the interests of "security" his mobile was cut off, and he has not come home. Also present now: the head risk manager, responsible for Eric Dale's demise, Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore).

Once Tuld gets his golden-retriever-level summary from Sullivan, he knows this is The End. It falls to the trading-floor manager, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) to pep-talk the sales floor into selling out the company, knowing most of them are also going to lose their jobs when it's done, but with a million-plus bonus for axing themselves, the company, Wall Street, and the world economy.

Special kudos go to Kevin Spacey for delivering a performance that is restrained and real this time. He even looks right, and he is the most genuinely complex and conflicted character. Irons too is riveting, managing to be both chatty and Olympian, quick-witted and clueless. Tucci is workmanlike as usual. Bettany is convincing and a little raw in the Ben Affleck role, the aggressive, risk-taking, Nicorette-chomping salesman who's blown a two-million-plus year's earnings mostly on luxuries, a $150,000 sports car (which sounds better than it looks; it's the one that gets driven to Brooklyn Heights to corral Eric Dale), and over $75,000 on call girls and cocaine. The other actors, though carefully chosen, are not as interesting, and this is not an ensemble piece. It doesn't depict a world where people cooperate. There is too much dithering in the script and there are not enough memorable lines, except for almost everything Jeremy Irons says. There's the one about the golden retriever, and the signal line of the piece: "It's not called panic if you're first out the door."

There's a business about Sam Rogers' dying dog that isn't used forcefully enough to justify its being dragged in. There are also one or two gaps in continuity: but this film was reportedly shot in three or four days. Excellent use is made of steel and glass, of night shots of Manhattan, men (few women) in good suits, and a shot of Tuld (Irons) eating alone by a sweep of windows (On the World?) in the company dining room, a moment that nails the man's sublime indifference. Chandor's own father worked in the industry for forty years, and one thing he brings to this film, well received at Sundance and a creditable, even flashy, first effort, is fairness. We pay attention to these men even if we don't like them. There is sympathy if not psychological depth. These are not caricatures. Chandor deserves credit for bringing in such a good-looking, complicated picture for just a little over three million and delivering a swirl of financial events in only 109 minutes. The Red camera cinematography of Frank G. DeMarco does much to contribute to the film's cool elegance.

Seen and reviewed as part of New Directors/New Films, presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and MoMA and the series' opening night film. Picked up at Sundance by Lionsgate, it opens in US theaters in the autumn. It was also at Sundance and Berlin.

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