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Friday, October 21, 2011

Gripping Margin Call shows little sympathy for the 1%

IS IT TOO LATE TO CASH OUT? Zachary Quinto in Margin Call
  • Lionsgate
  • IS IT TOO LATE TO CASH OUT? Zachary Quinto in Margin Call
Margin Call occupies the moral real estate where Wall Street’s conscience would be, if it had one. Writer-director J.C. Chador’s treats the first hours of the 2008 economic collapse in the same way filmmakers imagined the trigger of a nuclear conflict during the Cold War in thrillers like Dr. Strangelove or Miracle Mile.

A handful of analysts and executives at a Lehman Brothers-type firm discover that the financial markets are on the brink of Armageddon. Do they choose to go public and minimize the economic pain caused by their policies, or do they keep secrets, point fingers and try to squeeze a final few dollars out of their toxic assets? You can probably guess which is the safer bet. Without demanding you sympathize with Margin Call’s white-collar antiheroes, the slow-burning docudrama recounts a compelling story of a corrupt institution grappling with its self-destruction.

Taking place over a sleepless 36-hour period, Margin Call begins with a round of Up in the Air-style layoffs, as security guards escort out longtime employees and the “safe” workers keep their head down. Before leaving, shell-shocked risk management whiz Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) hands off his most recent project to his brightest analyst, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), warning him to “be careful.”

Working late that night, Peter discovers Eric’s explosive findings and immediately calls in his boss. (Rule of thumb: If anyone tells you “You’ve got to come into the office” and it’s after midnight, it’s not for a surprise birthday party.) Margin Call finds some gallows humor in the way Peter bears the bad news up the corporate ladder, from a hot-shot trader (Paul Bettany) to the cheerfully arrogant titan of industry (Jeremy Irons). Facing the magnitude of the impending disaster, characters say “Fuck me” so much, it could be the movie’s title.

Margin Call avoids getting bogged down in jargon about credit default swaps. The gist is that the company must either sell its now-worthless assets or ride the market’s downward spiral. “There are three ways to make a living in this business: be first, be smarter, or cheat,” Irons declares as the executives contemplate doing, in effect, all three at once. Quinto appealingly conveys Peter’s confusion at the kind of greed that defies logic, embodied by his salary-obsessed colleague (Penn Badgley). Kevin Spacey, as a loyal executive at a midlife crisis, vainly fights to protect the company’s reputation and the livelihood of investors who could be bankrupted in a corporate fire sale.

Directing his first feature, J.C. Chador comes across as a student of playwrights like David Mamet and Harold Pinter. In low, tense confrontations, the financiers repeatedly fail tests of characters in boardrooms and hallways so quiet and antiseptic, they could be on a space station. The actors give fine performances as once-complacent Masters of the Universe shaken by fear and sleep deprivation. Two of the firm’s most sharkish senior decision-makers, played by Simon Baker and Demi Moore, get short shrift, suggesting his high-powered hatchetman and her executive scapegoat were either underwritten or lost some of their big scenes in the film’s final edit. I like to imagine that Moore’s playing an older version of her sex-harasser from Disclosure.

“You’re selling something that you know has no value,” Spacey declares at one point, using this specific crisis to articulate a message that resonates with contemporary politics, media and consumerism. Margin Call makes a microcosm of the Wall Street chicanery that continues to ripple through the world economy and provides the best fiction film about the disaster to date. J.C. Chador’s promising talent might be worth an investment.

Margin Call. 4 stars. Written and directed by J.C. Chador. Stars Zachary Quinto, Kevin Spacey. Rated R. Opens Fri., Oct. 21, at Landmark Midtown, AMC Phipps and Lefont Sandy Springs.

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