Sunday, November 6, 2011

Stockbrokers Are People Too, Maybe, by Mark Donovan

You may want a primer on the behaviors and history that lead to the financial collapse of 2008 before going in to Margin Call, the new financial thriller from writer/director J.C Chandor. There are numerous terms and numbers thrown out at the characters and audience, and it’s hard to make sense of it all. But, then, that’s the point. Margin Call tells the story of a 24 hour period in which a few managers and executives at a Lehman Brothers-like firm try to avert an impending disaster, in which even the very highest executives are not entirely sure what the information means. The one character who seems to have the best grasp on the information is a rocket scientist, and even he doesn’t know exactly what is happening, or how to stop it.

It may seem somewhat masochistic to watch a financial thriller about the 2008 financial collapse while we are still experiencing the effects of it, but Margin Call makes for an effective and entertaining thriller, even while keeping the majority of the action contained to various boardrooms and offices. The boardroom scenes are tense, without devolving into shouting matches between veteran actors. And none of the actors come across as outright villains, they are all just people put into the overwhelming situation of trying to avert impending disaster, though Jeremy Irons does come off slightly vampiric. It is a bold move- especially in these times, where stockbrokers are perceived as enemy #1.

The ensemble cast includes Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Demi Moore, Zachary Quinto, Simon Baker, Irons, and Penn Badgley. Stanley Tucci also shows up in scenes that bookend the film, as the risk management director whose work exposes the impending collapse, and whose role also seems to be the guy that just spouts numbers. It’s a role similar to Liam Neeson’s in Gangs of New York, in that he is mentioned constantly throughout the film while only appearing in it for a few minutes, not in the spouting numbers way. As one of the least recognizable names in the ensemble, Quinto does a fine job as Tucci’s rocket scientist protégé, who takes over his work after he is fired early on.

Kevin Spacey and Paul Bettany also deliver fine performances. This is perhaps one of Kevin Spacey’s best performances since Moon (where he played the voice of the robot GERTY), and it’s always good to see Bettany doing more than just glowering while killing CGI monsters. Penn Badgley is passable as a young, cocky stockbroker, though I kept thinking he was Adam Brody. Are we sure they’re not related? It was somewhat sad to hear his character admit that all he ever wanted to do was be a stockbroker. He must have had very little imagination as a kid.

Simon Baker and Demi Moore fare less well, though they aren’t given much to work with. They mostly just stay in the background as Spacey, Bettany, and Irons do the heavy lifting. And the one scene with the two of them sandwiching a cleaning woman in an elevator is a little too on the nose in terms of imagery. Aasif Mandvi can also be glimpsed taking a short break from The Daily Show, though he is given even less to do than Moore.

Margin Call occasionally evokes another one-location thriller, Deterence, though I would say that Margin Call is much more sure-footed and effective. Both deal with people making impossible choices in the face of catastrophe, but Margin Call has the benefit of being a fictional account of real events, and the ensemble is much better. While it may seem strange to find entertainment and excitement in a film about an event from which we are still feeling the fallout, Margin Call is nevertheless a well made, tense thriller, which manages to also be entertaining.

Written by Mark Donovan
Editor: Rod Webber

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