Margin Call Movie Review

Zachary Quinto and Penn Badgley in Margin Call
Zachary Quinto and Penn Badgley in 'Margin Call' - Photo Credit: Walter Thomson / Roadside Attractions
Reviewed by Ian Forbes, Sobering Conclusion

I’ve been told there’s some sort of financial crisis in America. Apparently, huge investment firms, banks, Wall Street, and other pillars of the economic system were pushing the boundaries of speculation and greed, and didn’t stop until the dam burst. I know, I know. I have to work on my analogies.

In any case, and tongue firmly in cheek, it’s no secret that times are tough for people. Whether or not things could have been averted or eased is a moot point now, the goal is finding a way to move forward. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t learn from our mistakes or analyze how events unfolded. In the film world, a few documentaries have taken a look at the economic meltdown (a la Inside Job, Collapse, Capitalism: A Love Story) and it’s no surprise narrative films are also taking a stab at things; i.e. movies like Up in the Air, The Company Men, and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.

Now add one more to the list with Margin Call. Written and directed by J.C. Chandor, the film explores a 48-hour period at a large investment firm as it discovers that the bubble is about to burst and how they decide to deal with the situation. The production boasts a star-studded cast including Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Paul Bettany, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci and Simon Baker. Despite its well-known players, this isn’t some over-financed excuse for actors to garner award consideration. The budget was modest and the entire affair has the intimacy of an independent film or stage play.

This works for, and against, the overall result. Purposefully avoiding a specific time period (could be anytime from 2004 to 2009) and not proclaiming the company to be one of the infamous brokerage firms we’ve all come to regard with various levels of disdain, the focus is instead on the human drama. What drives people in the economic fast lane to act as they do? Is there room for scruples in such a cutthroat industry? If they saw the collapse coming, what was more important – creating financial stability for the betterment of the system or looking out for shareholders and themselves?

The story highlights different ethical and moral standards via the hierarchy within this fictitious company. At the top, we have Irons, whose only interest is sparing the company and its shareholders from financial ruin, even at the cost of national/global economic stability. Spacey, Bettany and Moore are all high level execs playing the game to win, covering their asses, but with varying measures of caution regarding how their actions will affect the big picture. Then there’s Tucci and Quinto, who are the ones to discover the end is nigh and do what they can to warn those above them that the sky is indeed about to fall (not literally though, this isn’t a Roland Emmerich film).

For better or worse, the story plays out like a procedural, all very linearly and clinically. On the negative side, there’s a completely overstated and unnecessary metaphor concerning Spacey’s sick dog that is so over-the-top that it’s almost comical. Also, the film suffers from multiple ending syndrome and I had to recheck the credits to make sure Steven Spielberg didn’t lend a hand in that regard. To its benefit though, the issues being explored and the acting performances are all interesting enough to watch – even though the subject matter is so topical, and possibly traumatic, that audiences may have trouble mustering up the willpower to see the film in the first place.

The only other nitpicking I’ll do concerns the almost overly dramatic tone that Chandor attempts to hold throughout the film. It was so thick and obvious in its intent that the biggest surprise of the proceedings is that they didn’t get Philip Glass to do the score.

Still, if you count yourself among those intrigued at getting a glimpse of how companies could extend themselves so far, bringing us to the economic juncture we’re at right now, Margin Call decently hits the mark. It could have been tightened up quite a bit, ended about ten minutes earlier, and toned down some of the archetypal clichés, but it managed to slightly surpass my relatively low expectations. Hmm, not sure that last line will make the DVD cover.


Margin Call hits theaters on October 21, 2011 and is rated R for language.

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