Posted on Friday, January 21st, 2011 by David Chen
It is safe to say that Margin Call was my most anticipated film of this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Having scored a spot on the buzzed-about 2010 Black List, Margin Call has an all-star cast featuring Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci, and Zachary Quinto. It is also topical, purporting to be based on true events and chronicling the actions of an investment banking firm at the epicenter of the 2008 financial disaster.
Sadly, Margin Call is an unfortunate lesson in what happens when you make a movie that, like The Social Network, features dozens of characters talking intensely at each other for 2 hours, only with none of the skill that Sorkin or Fincher brought to their particular film. Hit the jump for some further thoughts, plus an audio blog I recorded with Laremy discussing the film. (He loved it. I hated it.)
Margin Call begins with a scene that’s so good, it makes the punishingly mediocre material that follows all the more disappointing. There’s a round of layoffs happening at an investment banking firm and risk management specialist Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) is among them. The scene in which Tucci is fired masterfully captures all the nuance of such an uncomfortable situation: the robotic nature of the woman’s voice as she delivers the news, the subtle, almost imperceptible way she checks his dossier when reciting how many years he’s worked at the firm, the awkwardness experienced by Dale right afterwards. (Picture the opening scene of Up in the Air, where Clooney fires a hapless worker, only more raw and brutal).
Dale goes to pack up his office, but in a case of bad timing, it turns out he was right in the middle of putting together a report that portended the entire firm’s downfall. Before he leaves, he hands his work off to Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), a lower-level analyst who happens to be brilliant with numbers. Sullivan finishes what Dale started and realizes that, not only is the entire economy is headed down the toilet, but their century-old firm may not survive.
What follows over the course of the next hour that comprises the second act of the film is the information in my paragraph above being reiterated over and over again. No joke: that exact same information (including how Sullivan got his hands on the numbers) is passed up the chain of command in explicit detail several times, making this nearly-2-hour long film feel frustratingly padded. But don’t worry, each time the film makes sure to spell it out for the laypeople in the audience by having a character state something along the lines of “Tell me this like I don’t know anything about finance or accounting!” Thanks, Margin Call! Seriously though, we get that it’s a bad situation. Tell us something new or move it along, please.
[In the film, there is a dialogue exchange where one character says that the situation will get ugly, and the other responds "How ugly?" His rejoinder: "Really, really, really fucking ugly." Picture this scene repeated 5-8x and you will start to get an idea of what it was like to watch this film]
When you create a film that deals with a hopelessly complex issue such as the housing crash, you can choose to either capture the complexity of the issue using a strong sense of verisimilitude and/or focus on the human drama behind the scenes. (We’ve seen films that have done both. Hell, we’ve seen films starring Kevin Spacey that have done both. Recount, anyone?) The very cursory financial information provided in Margin Call hardly qualifies it for the former. I have literally heard finance-centered episodes of NPR’s Fresh Air that were more informative, more exciting, and more emotionally loaded than the entirety of Margin Call.
More unforgivably, all the characters in this film are complete ciphers. Several of them are given subplots that go nowhere, but with only paper-thin details about each one, we have no reason to care about whether X’s dog survives, or whether Y gets blamed for this whole mess, or whether Z gets fired. As both a dramatized document of one of the worst crashes in our history AND as a riveting drama, Margin Call fails completely.
There are moments when Margin Call springs to life and demonstrates exactly why it was a candidate for the vaunted Black List. Every now and then, a character delivers an interesting monologue with a clever turn of phrase or an eternal truth wrapped inside it, and we wonder what might have been if the film had maintained this level of consistency throughout. Instead, most of the film features pointless, clunky dialogue about how much money the characters make, with a large dose of heavy-handed expounding on “What It All Means, This Whole Investment Banking Thing.”
This is writer/director J. C. Chandor’s first feature-length film and it shows. The performances are excellent throughout (Spacey and Irons are great, and Quinto continues to impress as a dramatic big-screen actor) and the film looks great, but almost all the other choices are nearly disastrous. Scenes that could be easily edited to be more tight instead chug along sluggishly. Entire characters that contribute nothing to the plot could have been combined with others or excised entirely. There is nothing in Margin Call that is not illustrated far better by other observers and artists, even those using other forms of media. For example, John Wells The Company Men and Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air provide more intimate portraits on the agony of job loss. And those looking for something more exciting and/or profound on this subject would also be better served reading the works of Michael Lewis.
I can’t imagine anyone I know who would want to watch this film. I can’t imagine any studio that would want to buy or distribute this film, seeing as how there is no scenario I could envision in which it would perform well at the box office. Sure, it centers on a hot button issue, but the level of filmmaking skill on display in Margin Call unintentionally reveals the unfortunate truth that in movies, topicality isn’t everything.
Here’s my discussion about this film with Laremy from film.com.