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Home » Culture and Criticism

Margin Call

Submitted by on November 1, 2011 – 9:27 PMNo Comment

"So, nobody had time to Google 'leveraged portfolio'? ...Fuck it, let's just shoot it."

I got a promotional email about Margin Call from Lincoln Center, and incorrectly assumed I could only see it there, therefore braving a Saturday audience at the Elinor Bunin Monroe Theater — a lovely facility that plays host to one of the most consistently and obdurately fucking annoying filmgoing audiences in the city, and I frequent BAM, so I do not make that characterization lightly. We get it: you vote Democrat. Enough with the knowing sighs; if you're so smart, how come you and your party of nine didn't get here before the previews had already started?

In any case, it's playing on Time Warner's On Demand channel as well, whatever that says about the movie. What I say is that it's an amateurish mess. Writer/director J.C. Chandor has never had charge of a feature before, and it shows. This isn't to say that he's totally hopeless, or an idiot — his ability to attract an impressive roster of names is promising, among other things — but he's overmatched here, starting with the subject.

Margin Call is trying to position itself as a thriller set early in the current financial crisis. It isn't that; like The Ides of March, which sold itself in a similar way, it's actually more of a set piece that wants to explore individual conscience and responsibility within the framework of institutions and their actions. Fine. Timely; not uninteresting on paper. But the writing doesn't know enough specifics about financial analysis — really, about anything in that world — to get over, although I understand that it's a fictionalized version of what went down at Lehman. (The fact that I had to glean that from a review doesn't work in the film's favor.) The screenplay is vague on specifics, to a Spanish Prisoner-esque "The Process" degree, and that vagueness allows the characters to speak in clichés…but then, sometimes, it veers into industry jargon that confuses instead of explaining, and is apparently only in the dialogue to give the story a coat of authenticity. We don't get any hard numbers; we don't get to see the screens on which Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) finds these terrifying indicators; we get argot.

Chandor almost gets by with it, even though he doesn't entirely know what he's talking about, thanks to the actors. Spacey is excellent, and I can see him getting some awards attention here; Quinto, who co-produced, does a good job with not much. The Will Emerson character is written rather Mamet-ishly, but Paul Bettany inhabits him fully and it's a fun performance.

Alas, with a few other performances, you can see Chandor's inexperience, both as a feature director dealing with movie stars and in the industry he's writing about. I've seen Simon Baker's performance praised elsewhere, and I like Baker, but I don't get it; he doesn't seem to know how to play the role, and the ice-water-in-the-veins thing he's going for lands on the screen as lethargy, not calm. Demi Moore is even worse, and I actually felt bad for her, because it's her job character-wise to spend most of her screentime looking like she's about to vomit — but that didn't seem intentional. It seemed underdirected; Moore seemed frightened. The casting is somewhat unexpected and could have worked really well, but you could practically hear her writing "I will not pull a Dr. Christmas Jones" 500 times on her mental blackboard. When you weren't staring at her bare legs, that is, and not for nothing, but the production designer could have spent a day in a Merrill Lynch cube farm and gotten the knack of how financiers dress. Bare legs: no. Jeremy Irons, bazillionaire, wearing a cheap button-collar shirt from Land's End and an ill-fitting jacket in the executive mess: no. Wall Street guys have specific, particular ways they handle their neckties and cuffs at mealtime, and they have wives who have specific, particular ways of spending too much money on specific, particular suspenders. Oliver Stone nailed it. Chandor may never have even seen it in person.

The film is a pudding-y disappointment, except for Spacey, Bettany, and Stanley Tucci getting his walking papers in the opening sequence. Spacey and Quinto gild a king-size turd during the scene in which Sullivan asks Rogers if he's told his son what's going on; the script is capering almost visibly in the background all "DO YOU GET IT HOW WE WERE LIED TO DO YA DO YA ARE YA SURE" but those two work it like pros. Spacey is also saddled with an anvilicious side plot involving — spoiler alert! — the death of his dog, the extraneous end of which finds him in his ex-wife's yard, burying the dog, and then she comes out of the house to remind him in so many words that he doesn't live there anymore. It's Mary McDonnell, and if it's not the biggest WTF in the film, it's in the top three. She's billed quite high in the opening credits, but she only gets the one scene (see also: my excitement to see my girl M. Diz, who got like nine words as an executive assistant); she's doing a rando dese-and-dose accent and wearing a super-cleavage-y henley top, but it's…the middle of the night, so what's with the push-up bra? I suspect the character got ground into hamburger in the editing bay, so it’s not McDonnell's fault, and I've always liked her, but what happened to her face? She's like an ad for the plastics council.

It's a frustrating hour and a half, too reliant on figurative shot-making, too concerned with Making A Statement instead of reflecting the way people speak to each other. With a little more experience, and a subject he's more grounded in, Chandor could tell a good story, but he tried to fudge the writing, and then he didn't give the actors enough guidance, and the whole thing is just kind of film school. The 86%-fresh rating it's enjoying at Rotten Tomatoes is baffling to me; no doubt some of the praise is genuine, but from some of it, I get a whiff of "I don't want to admit that I find the subject matter, even in fictional form, too dull/arcane to follow, so: fantastic! on point! devastating commentary blah blah squirt!" Because the movie I saw is very much not good. Don't pay to see it.

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