Published: October 26, 2011
Directed by J.C. Chandor
Opens Oct. 28 at the Charles Theatre
If you prefer films where the plot is clearly explained, speakers are continuously in focus, and you can really care about the characters, Margin Call may not be for you. Writer/director J.C. Chandor has amassed an impressive cast for his feature film debut, with Stanley Tucci, Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, Paul Bettany, Simon Baker, Penn Badgley, and Zachary Quinto all suiting up for this look at the financial meltdown from the perspective of a fictional financial firm. But despite the timeliness of the topic and the emotions it raises (see the Occupy movement), Margin Call is oddly antiseptic.
The film starts with a mass firing in the firm and moves through a 24-hour period in which it eventually becomes clear that not only is the firm in an untenable financial situation but fixing it would likely cause the collapse of the stock market. Each character has to make a choice about whether or how to save his or her own ass at the expense of Main Street. These are high stakes, but emotions never run higher than a low simmer.
Spacey provides the closest thing to a heart in the film, but he still seems fairly numb. Irons gets all the best lines, asking Quinto’s risk analyst to explain the problem by speaking “as you might to a small child or a golden retriever” and describing money as “made-up pieces of paper with pictures on it we use so we don’t have to kill each other just to get something to eat.” While Irons brings some needed zing, he never goes beyond that. Moore is stuck personifying the coldness of the business world, while Bettany takes on a greed-is-good swagger. All of this amounts to little more than the characters reorganizing themselves into a constantly shifting hierarchy of douchebaggery in which the difference between the best and worst is pretty small. As a result, it’s nearly impossible to care about anyone. Instead, you watch them go about their unseemly business bathed in a frigid color palette as cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco moves people and objects in and out of focus. It is kind of neat to look at but completely lacking in emotional resonance. No matter how great a cast you have, you know the characters aren’t pulling you in if one of their dogs dies and the audience just shrugs.
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