If you’re just dying to see how Wall Street crashed and burned in 2008 from the insider view, then Margin Call is the movie for you. Set inside a firm that is a fictional stand-in for any number of real investment banks, the film takes place over the span of one day in which the entire house of cards threatens to fall apart, taking every person in the company down. First time writer/director J.C. Chandor assembled quite a cast to bring this story of greed and fear to the screen. It is no surprise that Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons are stellar. Zachary Quinto (Star Trek‘s Mr. Spock) and Paul Bettany also stand out. Quinto plays Peter, a former “rocket scientist” lured to Wall Street because “the money is better.” And Bettany plays a slightly older broker trying to keep his job and his place at the top of the food chain.
The film opens with a team of women in suits arriving to lay off half the firm. It is very Up in the Air-esque. And the first to go is Eric (Stanley Tucci), head of Risk Management. Being escorted from the building clutching his box of personal belongings, he passes Peter a flash drive, and as the elevator doors close he warns him “be careful.” Peter stays late to look at the data on the drive, and what he finds kicks the film into gear. It seems that the firm has only the narrowest of windows to sell off a boatload of toxic investments or they will be toast. And before you know it he’s called his boss who’s called his boss and so on and so on, and everyone is gathered around a conference table trying to figure out how to get out of this mess. Enter the grand poo-bah played as only Irons could – suave and dispassionate with the hint of a smile. Once he understands the situation, there is only one way out and that is to sell off the toxic assets as fast as possible before anyone knows what they are buying and save their own asses. Too bad for everyone else. Sound familiar?
Margin Call is ultimately a not at all surprising story of the Wall Street catastrophe, and except for Sam, no one seems particularly bothered by what they are doing. There are some fine scenes, mostly when Jeremy Irons or Kevin Spacey are present, but the film felt very uneven to me, and a few of the casting choices a bit off. Demi Moore was better than she usually is, but playing a brilliant analyst is a stretch in the believability department. And I love Simon Baker, but his middle-management character felt a lot like his Mentalist role. There are not really many people to care about, though Sam does grow on you, and I wish there had been more of Tucci. I think you are supposed to be feeling the ticking clock, but I just didn’t care. My viewing partner liked it, but it didn’t ever really engage me.