Margin Call – Movie Review

Part truth and part fiction, this yarn of financial meltdown in the executive boardroom is great entertainment from start to finish.

If you are one of Kevin Spacey’s diehard fans you will see this film to observe the master at work, regardless of the rest of the cast. He is as great as ever and seems to be enjoying his role as an ethically disenfranchised executive (nearly as much as he did in the similar “Casino Jack”).

Spacey needs to get back to the exceptionally creative, high impact work that earned him his two Oscars, “American Beauty” and the simmering “The Usual Suspects.” However, many moons have passed since those films and he seems to be doing just fine, thank you, resting on his laurels and watching the money come in.

Everybody loves to see the big boys and girls get it, and the big boys and girls get it good in this potboiler about high stakes back room financial scamming. The winning ingredient in this production is the great supporting cast backing up Spacey. Paul Bettany has become famous for his powerful supporting work in Russell Crow showcases such as “Master and Commander.”

In this film, he supports Kevin Spacey from above. His performance is so strong that the viewer feels as if he is barely in check. He is going to kill somebody, eventually, and it is as likely to be himself as anybody. Bettany is emerging as a leading man; it is all he can do not to assume the lead in this movie.

Jeremy Irons is as magnificently cold, calculating and superior as in his Oscar winning “Reversal of Fortune.” He is the mastermind of the highest echelons of the financial machine that is the American securities market. More importantly, he is a survivor. In fact, he is the person who decides who will survive and who will not.

Of course, even those who do not survive are gone for only a short amount of time. With the right friends, they have second and even third lives amongst the power elite. Irons plays the grand old man, the most cynical of the cynical. His survival is not based on how much he cares; rather, he has survived because of how little he cares, for others.

Past Golden Globe nominee Demi Moore plays the alpha female, with style. She turns out to be one of the few insiders who knew the investment firm was dangerously over-exposed. In the end, she will be in the middle of the lottery to see who takes the fall.

She has a tough acting part—she gets very few lines with which to deliver her message. She has to use her eyes and body language to express the dread and loathing she feels as the train wreck nears.

The film starts with Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), nineteen-year employee and professional risk analyst, being marched out the door. During his last day at work, Dale had analyzed the leverage on the books and found it to be dangerously high.

The firm had taken on too much risk and it would be hard to get rid of the risk without showing weakness. As Paul Bettany said, “It felt like David Mamet, but in a good way.” As in Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” to show weakness is to die. The preferred alternative to an apology is a counter attack.

In the end a plan is devised that will allow the lifeboats to be launched before the ship is completely under water, even if this means stealing other people’s lifeboats. The bad side of this Faustian bargain is that there only will be losers.

Some will be big losers and some will be small losers. The fact that this requires betrayal of friends must be kept in the background. The only objective is making sure the firm executives are not the last ones left holding bag.

This no-nonsense screenplay tells a story grounded in the recent gigantic financial meltdown of a Wall Street mired in toxic securities. Loosely based on the fall of Lehman Brothers, it adds a couple of fictional, but believable twists that exaggerate the potential for unethical self-service in the context of under-regulated trading firms.

Beyond that, it is a simple, straightforward scandal told by some of the best actors around today. Director J.C. Chandor’s narrative fiction debut, this is a tremendous credit for a newcomer just out of the gate. Chandor wrote the screenplay, as well, and is as tight and riveting as can be. 

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Directed and Written by: J.C. Chandor
Starring: Zachary Quinto, Stanley Tucci and Kevin Spacey 
Release Date: October 21, 2011
MPAA: Rated R for language
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Country: USA
Language: English