Kevin Spacey

Kevin Spacey (Promotional Photo)

Margin Call (R)

Directed by J.C. Chando


J. C. Chandor's Margin Call is one of those films that speaks to a zeitgeist. Now is the time of depressing downsizing — but that's been true for a decade. More to the point: Now is the time of a take-no-prisoners approach, by large segments of the public, to the Wall Street wizards and their take-no-prisoners approach to buying and selling, no matter how worthless what they're selling, no matter how much risk is incurred by what they buy.

It's a time when America has collectively taken an interest in Wall Street — not as a source of glamour and guts as in Oliver Stone's film of that name, but as synonymous with hubris and bad judgment, if not venality. Margin Call is distinguished by its avoidance of easy moves — there's no villain or fall guy or hero. It's a sobering, and sober, look into corporate malfeasance — the kind that just goes with the job. As such, it's old-school realism with characters, rather than cartoons, and little melodrama.

Its strength, besides the very taut, no-nonsense script and fly-on-the-wall direction, both by Chandos, derives from the character actors brought on board to sit about in boardrooms and try to assess the prospects for damage control.

As Eric Dale, the guy who gets sacked at the start, but who has noticed something The Firm (kinda Lehman Brothers-y) better take note of soon, Stanley Tucci is a humble maverick, the kind of guy, it's implied, anyone would like to work for and with — so, when he's shoved out unceremoniously, well, some shit-storm must be approaching.

His newish underling (Zachary Quinto) is a former "rocket scientist" who finds working with numbers in finance risk more lucrative, and he supplies the data that Dale hadn't plugged in. He suddenly becomes the equivalent of the boy with his finger in the dike.

All the suits above Dale have little clue what the numbers mean, in and of themselves, and it's fun listening to the analogies that crop up as everyone tries to comprehend what they're facing. First there's Paul Bettany as Will Emerson, a staunch, just-following-orders (and making $2 million a year) type of mid-level executive (has it been said often enough how good Bettany always is?); above him is Kevin Spacey as Sam Rogers, 30 years with The Firm, the kind of guy with no illusions or delusions — except, maybe, the salesman's one firm rule: Never sell people something they won't want more of (Spacey has been good in this kind of role for so long I'm starting to believe he only moonlights as an actor); it's his job, ultimately, to gear up the staff to sell off the pile of "malodorous excrement" that the mortgage packages have become.

Next up the line are the grimacing duo of Simon Baker and Demi Moore (both a bit out of their weight class in this group); Baker is good at being oily and here he's slickly bland; Moore gets to be the tight-mouthed head-that-will-roll; finally, at the top of it all and arriving via helicopter from, doubtless, some all-night casino somewhere, is Jeremy Irons as John Tuld, the guy with the "excrement" line who is simply wonderful at uttering the Realpolitik salvos that will get into the brave new world after the shit-storm subsides.