Margin Call doesn’t look like a film that was made with a $3 million budget when you look at the cast list. Zachary Quinto (also producer), Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci, Paul Bettany, Demi Moore, Simon Baker and the ever cool, Jeremy Irons took pay-cuts and a chance appearing in J.C. Chandor’s debut as a filmmaker in a story that follows the most important people in a financial firm during the last 24 hours before the global financial meltdown. The film claims to be fictional but somehow, the CEO’s name is Tuld.
It begins just as the company is sending home the first victims of the meltdown. One of them is Eric Dale (Tucci), a mid-level manager. As he is escorted out of the building, he hands a flash-drive to one of the young execs, Peter (Quinto), who has survived the first wave of layoffs. The only thing he tells him about the contents is that they never let him finish, and that he should be careful. The young exec stays back as his colleagues go out to celebrate surviving the downsizing. Whatever he finds in the flash-drive is enough to bring the company’s bigwigs into the building in the middle of the night by any means necessary.
Most of the film takes place in the company’s headquarters and the characters appear in the same scenes a lot, which explains how the rookie director managed to shoot it in two and a half weeks. Jeremy Irons as CEO Tuld introduction was a bit too dumbed-down but I guess it was done to illustrate how even the company’s head knows nothing about how it works. And from the events in the film, you can tell that he also doesn’t care as long as the money is flowing.
I didn’t know what the fascination with Simon Baker’s age was because I didn’t see anything about it by the end. There was a scene in the toilet involving Baker’s and Penn Badgley’s character, I also didn’t see its significance. Aasif Mandvi has been in a lot of serious films but I can’t take him seriously after The Daily Show, but he was okay as one of the company lawyers (or some sort of mathematician).
The rest of the film, though, is really good. If Tucci had more scenes, I’m sure his name would be on everyone’s lips for an award. I felt that he was underused, but it made sense and his disappearance was a huge and very important part of the film. The scene in the bathroom interrupts a sobby Badgley in a toilet stall, when he’s faced with the fact that he might also lose his job. It’s hard to feel sorry for a 24-year old with a six figure salary.
Paul Bettany, who has made terrible choices over the last couple of years, finally finds something that he not only fits into but also performs really well in. His character is a douchebag, but in a good way, if such a thing exists. He is used to depict how a lot of Wall Street types earn too much and blow it all on their vice of choice. It shows how people who are entrusted with a lot of clients’ money don’t even know how to manage their own. Despite his huge paycheck and extravagant lifestyle, he still comes off as cool, which works well to justify why his juniors would look up to him and probably continue the cycle of wild Wall Streeters.
Peter is a classic case of industrial brain-drain. How people who could be doing groundbreaking work have no choice but to work in high-paying but pretty ‘easy’ jobs for people who have no idea how their companies run because the pay is good.
Spacey’s character is the moral voice of the film. He is torn between doing something that he knows is wrong and something that will make him a lot of money. He is exactly the opposite of Tuld, who is not a bad guy, at least in the context of the film. Their characters just stand on different sides of the battle between conscience and selfishness. At one point, Tuld gives a speech about money, where he says its only purpose is to keep us from killing each other food.
The final scene, which was shot at Citigroup’s actual trading floor is almost classic. It makes you fall in love with Paul Bettany, you know he’s screwing people over but you have no choice but to admire his charm, but the credit goes to the writing there.
J.C. Chandor gives an unglossy apocalypse-like narrative of not how the problem started but how some of the people who found out about it first reacted and contributed in worse. If you want to know how it started, watch Inside Job. He does his best to make some aspects of the meltdown simpler to understand but it still remains complex, which makes you realize how some of the financial institutions dug themselves into holes they ended up getting into. The CEO, in his intro, says that to survive in the business, you have to be FIRST, SMART or CHEAT. By the end of the film, you realize which option some of the companies chose.