Oct 22, 2011
It looks like hype was looking for an Occupy Wall Street movie and found this one right on time. Its timeliness will no doubt help conceal the fact that it isn't a very good movie. It is entertaining and spottily enjoyable, a valiant but flawed effort by noticeably inexperienced writer-director J.C. Chandor.
David Denby has lost his last marble by saying that it's the best movie ever made about Wall Street. The screenplay feels like an early draft, the cinematography and the staging are mostly inept, and given that some of it does work, it squanders many opportunities to make its point, whatever it is, clearly and forcefully. If it is trying to do what Downfall did for Hitler, that is, give human dimension to these greedy bastards, it fails. There is a difference between having ambivalent or ambiguous characters and characters who act incoherently within the premise they have been set up in, which is what happens with most of the characters here.
As I could not clearly understand the point of this movie, I surmise that these are its two main premises:
1. The investment bankers gambling other people's money in their glass bubble above Manhattan did not fully know or even understand what they were doing, and the few that did looked the other way as long as the profits kept coming.
2. Huge piles of money are thrown at or withheld from these characters like carrots or sticks, and therefore, they feel they have no choice either way. All the characters are immobilized by greed, or the system, or the need for money, hence nobody has any principles.
The problem is, paralysis and general spinelessness may be true to life, but they are unsatisfying dramatic choices. Characters who know and fear the worst are much more exciting than characters who know nothing and just look stricken at the sight of a computer screen. You could have the most appalling villains and make the audience care for them if they have their own skewed integrity, but in this movie nobody rises to the challenge.
Paradoxically, documentary films about financial shenanigans like Enron: The Smartest Guys in The Room or Inside Job feel more urgent and deliver more of a blow to the gut. The reason for this is mainly in the writing. Margin Call has lots of expository speeches but little action; hence, the stakes, high as they are, don't feel as urgent as they should. We are told the world of these investment bankers is about to collapse, but we don't see it happening to them, they just explain it to us. When Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), is asked how he can blow a yearly two and a half million dollar salary, he meticulously lists his budget: what goes towards taxes, the mortgage, the flashy car, the expensive wardrobe, restaurants, booze and whores, which he can deduct as entertainment. The enormous figures sound realistic, but it would be more compelling to see what is at stake for him, or at least to see how this has personal consequences. Yet nobody in this movie, despite sweating buckets at the sight of gnarly numbers, seems to have a personal stake or a reaction, except for maybe losing their jobs. They already have so much money, it's like bubkes to them. This might be realistic, but it is dramatically flaccid. If I held a gazillion stock options valued at $95 a share and the next minute they are worth 65 cents, I would have a big reaction, believe me.
The film begins tautly enough with a well executed sequence of massive layoffs at a prestigious investment firm, where two ruthlessly efficient female enforcers calmly tell Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) that he is now finished at the firm, all his communications with it severed. He leaves his unfinished files with junior analyst Peter Sullivan, who then does the math and discovers a financial catastrophe waiting to happen. Eric is fired and his attitude is one of resignation rather than revenge or indignation.
At the same time, Peter Sullivan is an actual rocket scientist who ends up working at this firm because the money is better than in academia. After two years in such a cutthroat place, he still behaves like a Pollyanna. Resignation, like innocence or timidity, are boring dramatic choices, and soon, despite a certain show of ambition that is not fully exploited, Sullivan's dramatic thread runs dry as well. So the movie jumps to Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), who is like the den mother and cheerleader of his floor, and has been in that place for over thirty years, egging youngsters on to give it all for the firm, surviving by stopping his ears to all the unseemly financial misdeeds. He's supposed to have feelings because his dog is dying (the cheapest way to telegraph humanity). Remember Hitler in Downfall? He was nice to dogs and secretaries, but the genius of that movie is that the more humanly Hitler was portrayed, the more of a monster he became. He might have been insane, but he was not an incoherent character. Sam (whom I am not comparing to Hitler) oscillates between humanity and ruthless efficiency. He seems to have a bit of a backbone, loyalty to the firm (which is over 100 years old and no one seems to give a shit), but then he acts spinelessly, and we do not quite understand why. The way the script is written, the stuff that needs to drive the action surfaces after the fact, (turns out he needs the money). This kills the dramatic tension. If we had known that Sam has a conflict between, let's say, his debts and his loyalty to the firm, we'd be hanging at the edge of our seats, but the way it's played, it doesn't so much feel like a betrayal but like a deflation. And so we are left with a hazy collection of characters whom we have trouble understanding. Their motivations, money notwithstanding, are not personal enough. Worse, nobody in this movie fights back, even for craven reasons, like greed or revenge. They all rather take the check, which is humanly credible but it flatlines the movie.
If Margin Call feels like a better movie than it is, it's because the cast is immensely enjoyable to watch, and several individual scenes work nicely. Chandor does a good job of keeping the entire cast at a very balanced, high level of performance. They all seem to belong to the same universe, which is quite a feat.
Jeremy Irons is over the top but mesmerizing as John Tuld, a Dick Fuld or some such megamaster of the universe type. Irons, like Spacey, is an actor who can do fifteen states of mind in one scene, and he nails the studied charm of the supremely arrogant. His scene in the boardroom is a roller coaster ride of imperiousness, coyness, false modesty, a man who is playing the part his underlings expect from him; a smorgasbord of acting. He goes to town, but despite his expansive performance, he is there to represent The Evils of Capitalism, but is not very believable as a flesh and blood character. And as much as I adore Irons, I have a beef with the fact that his character is British and not American, as he should be. The villainy we are all up in arms about today was mostly homegrown; why make it foreign? Why couldn't Irons do an American accent? To me, this choice undermines the story and makes it ring faker than it should.
Not even Kevin Spacey seems to believe the business with the dog. Still, what he is capable of communicating before he even opens his mouth is astonishingly precise, and he is equally sharp when he speaks. He's like a microsurgeon. He takes a line comprised solely of the word "what" and quietly turns it into a mini drama. And it is nice to see him playing a defanged shark, for a change. He is superb.
Demi Moore, who is excellent, is wasted in a role that has a huge turn that then goes nowhere, but she has one amazing scene in which her expression registers bitter regret at having pursued a life at the shark tank, instead of something more fulfilling. She's so good, one wishes she would abandon professional celebritydom and come back to acting. Simon Baker is very good but unexplored as an icy Jared Cohen. Paul Bettany is excellent but also left behind as a cold bastard who turns out to be not so horrible after all. And poor Stanley Tucci gets a potentially juicy role and has to settle with non-action. The actors deserve kudos for making much more of their characters than what they were given to play with.
There are some nice touches about the way corporations work: there is always the boss of the boss of the boss, all the way to God, while at the same time no one ever takes responsibility for anything. The layoff scenes are chilling in their use of proxies and euphemisms to soften the cruelty of being fired, and the uneasy camaraderie at such a poisonous work environment seems quite authentic. If only it had been directed by Sidney Lumet. He would have brought the genuine human messiness that this schematic movie lacks.