Cast: Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley), Jaren Cohen (Simon Baker), Mary Rogers (Mary McDonnell), Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore), Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci)
Director: J. C. Chandor
Theatrical release: 10/21/2011
DVD Date: 12/20/2011
Running Time: 107 minutes
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Review: I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting from Margin Call, but it certainly wasn't the movie I watched. Marketed as a thriller, it was not so much to me. Rather, it is a drama with tension — does that make it a thriller? — that proceeded along at a very odd stop-and-go pace.
With two relatively short exceptions, the film takes place within the offices of an unnamed investment banking company in Manhattan. The storyline itself is set during the summer of 2008 and over a 24 hour period. The script almost certainly drew some inspiration from events preceding the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in September, 2008, though no specific references to such are made in the film.
The plot, such as it is, is simple and straight-forward. During a routine downsizing, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), a mid-level executive is let go. As he is leaving the building, he hands a thumb drive to one of his associates, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), telling him to "be careful". Curious, Peter — he's a rocket scientist by education — looks at the data on the drive, runs his own analysis, and concludes that the company has been skirting financial disaster, more like financial apocalypse, by the narrowest of margins over the past couple of weeks. His predictions are that the company's luck will run out any day now, wiping out the entire value of the company and taking down many of its counterparties along with it. He shares the information with his new boss, who shares it with his boss, and so on until the CEO of the company, John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), flies in on his helicopter to convene an emergency meeting of the executive committee at 2 AM. By the time trading opens in New York later that morning, they've made a decision on how to proceed.
I'm guessing Margin Call is supposed to be one of those "message" movies, the "if you do not know of your history you are doomed to repeat it" kind of movie. Indeed, at one point Tuld reminds one of the "good guys" — Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) — that what they're facing is nothing new, and proceeds to cite specific dates in history when similar financial collapses have occurred … and life went on. So it is and will be here. Or maybe we're supposed to be shocked at 24-year-olds who don't really understand their jobs making a quarter million a year for moving numbers from one screen to another. Or that people who make millions of dollars a year can't afford to quit their jobs on principle because they "need the money". Or that creative people will find ways to make a profit from any situation. None of these — or even all of these — are sufficient in and of themselves to carry an entire film without some other foundation … and that's most certainly what this film lacks.
To its credit, the film assumes some measure of financial literacy on the part of the viewer and isn't weighed down with scenes trying to explain the intricacies of credit swaps and derivatives and leverage. There actually isn't any explanation of the title, though anyone who has a brokerage account knows what "margin" is and what a "margin call" is … though to be clear, it does not strictly apply to the company depicted in the film; it's probably more of a euphemism for "wake-up call" than anything else.
On the plus side, it should be noted that the performances by all the principal actors are really quite terrific. It's a strong ensemble cast and they work well together. But on the other hand, the pacing is so erratic, and the storyline so thin, that it was hard for me to remain fully engaged. Margin Call isn't a bad movie by any means, but it is a throwaway film, the kind where a week from now I won't remember any specific plot details from it, and month from now won't likely remember who even played in it.
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