Set over 24 hours and based in the headquarters of the first Wall Street investment firm to predict that the first waves of the GFC were about to hit, and hit hard, writer/director J.C. Chandor serves up a disaster movie with bad ledgers instead of trampled cities and sweaty people in suits instead of angry aliens or super-sized monsters.
The first lesson of Margin Call is: think twice before you mess with Stanley Tucci. Tucci plays a senior risk analyst who is rather good at his job but unceremoniously shown the exit in the context of that old “restructuring” chestnut. His latest report remains incomplete, so he flicks a USB drive to colleague Peter (Zachary Quinton) and tells him to “be careful.”
Peter finishes the report and the findings aren’t good — in fact, they prophetise the end of the company and an industry bloodletting of Emmerich proportions. Peter calls his boss (Paul Bettany), who calls his boss (Kevin Spacey), who calls his boss (Simon Baker), who calls his boss. Firm CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) flies his chopters in and works out a game plan during middle of the night meetings.
Chandor’s wordy screenplay invests heavily in the kind of “greed is good” and “lunch is for wimps” dialogue to be expected. There’s lots of chatter about making the big bucks, about poor plebs too stupid to play the game, about big losses and big decisions.
Kevin Spacey’s character, a man high up the totem ladder but not high enough to make all the big calls, is the least stereotypical. Chandor’s writing matched with Spacey’s measured performance balances the tricky combo of dignity mixed with moral weakness. Almost everybody else are cut-outs: the brainy rookie, the jaded retrenched man, the profit obsessed top brass who will stop at nothing.
Margin Call is an ambitious attempt to create an interesting, mature and dramatic take on the origins of the GFC, fitted with a clock-is-ticking gimmick to give the story immediacy, but it’s not without flaws. The structure, for example, hinders rather than enhances the drama as the screenplay is forced to delay drama and pad out stretches it otherwise wouldn’t.
Whenever the pace starts to pick up and Margin Call gathers much needed intensity things inevitably slow down to a trickle, with conversations in cars, between meetings or in front of computer screens taking the sizzle out. The ending was always going to be open-ended but, vague and unconventional, it flounders, while at the same time scoring points for trying something conspicuously anti-Hollywood.
Margin Call’s Australian theatrical release date: March 15, 2012.