By: Henry J. Fromage (Three Beers) -
Movies about the 2008 financial crash and the current layoffs and belt-tightening economic environment are beginning to reach a saturation point. You can only examine so many angles of a topic, and how many are left after Wall Street 2, The Company Men, Up in the Air, or the excellent HBO flick, Too Big to Fail? At least one more good one, it seems, and Margin Call turns it into fodder for an acting showcase.
The film tells the story from the point of view of the traders and corporate bigwigs themselves as they watch a Lehman Brothers-style bank collapse around them over a 24 hour period. Civility and corporate hierarchy strain and fray under the pressure of financial and ethical quandaries, namely whether to drop their over-leveraged toxic assets on an unsuspecting market, salvaging what they can but possibly bringing down the whole system around them. This all involves a lot more math than the traders are apparently used to.
It’s usually limited to seeing how many lines of blow they can fit on a hooker’s stomach
One thing this movie does well is make that math, and the accompanying financial terms, accessible. We’re able to more closely understand the stakes when we know what’s going on, and the presence of the numbers and jargon adds to the realism of the film.
The main reason to watch, though, is to see what the excellent cast does with the material. Rising star Zachary Quinto is the primary protagonist, playing the young hotshot who discovers the financial cliff’s edge and then warns everyone how far the company is over it. Perhaps a little unfortunately, he plays the character as more Spock than Syler.
Seen here contemplating which of his several spine-removal techniques to employ on you
Thankfully, Jeremy Irons and Simon Baker are there to provide a little British scene-chewing menace. Paul Bettany falls somewhere in between- a jaded trader that still has a little soul left, no matter how much he denies it. After watching him glare through the same role ever since The Da Vinci Code, it was nice to see he still had it.
Just sportin’ his ‘ol assassin/fallen angel/warrior priest Blue Steel
Ditto for Kevin Spacey, who gives his best effort in some time. After his callous beginning scene, you think you’re in for more Horrible Bosses-style caricature, but his sad personal life is revealed in stages until we’re left with a broken man clinging to the last solid thing he has. My favorite performance, though, was the ever-impressive Stanley Tucci, playing the one purely decent character, who is fired at the beginning, sets the plot in motion with a warning to Quinto, and then has to face his own ethical quandary when the company needs him back to conduct the fire sale.
A mass firing begins the film, echoing in particular The Company Men and Up in the Air in more ways than just the superficial similarities. Too often Margin Call takes the conventional way out, which also undercuts the original parts of the film
You’ll want to have a drink handy when you hear grandiose lines like “Look at all these people, they have no idea what is going to happen,” which are delivered with an earnestness that ignores how commonplace they are. Like a lot of movies that resemble plays, Margin Call has several sweeping dialogues that don’t sound like conversations real people would ever have, at least without ending in a pretension-inspired slap-down.
This story is nothing you haven’t seen before, but the performances turn it into an experience well worth your time.
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: for every undercut or double-cross
Take a Drink: for every scene full of financial jargon
Drink a Shot: whenever someone mentions what career they passed up to be there