Written and directed by J.C. Chandor
Starring Zachary Quinto, Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci, Demi Moore, Penn Badgley, Simon Baker, Mary McDonnell, Aasif Mandvi
It's been two years since the stock market crashed creating massive layoffs, house repossessions, inflation and other turmoil, but other than a number of well-executed documentaries and Oliver Stone's "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps," the subject matter hasn't been covered in a way that mainstream audiences can fully understand what happened. It's commendable that first-time filmmaker J.C. Chandor decided to show one specific aspect of the crash and the decisions that influenced it and that he was able to assemble an impressive ensemble to tell the story, but "Margin Call" may not be the movie that helps enlighten those who still don't understand what exactly happened.
The film opens with a high-powered brokerage laying off a good percentage of its employees including Stanley Tucci's Eric Dale, the head of their risk management, who pleads to deaf ears that he's working on something important. Before leaving, he hands his data over to his second Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), who is now one of two left in the department. After crunching the numbers, Peter reaches a conclusion that the company is about to take huge losses from assets they're holding. He goes to his immediate superior Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) who brings in his own boss Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) and they spend all night trying to figure out how to rectify the problem. The company goes into damage control, selling off its holdings, knowing full well that it would start a panic, but that at least they will be the first people selling. Meanwhile, Peter and Will desperately need to find the disgruntled Eric Dale who may have all the answers.
This is a fairly complex ensemble drama that takes place entirely within 24 hours at a major financial firm, beginning with a number of layoffs and progressing into a full-on market crash. The opening of Tucci's character being fired gives you some idea of the cold cut-throat business in which the film takes place with the various suits at the firm reacting with little sentiment or feeling. As we start learning more about the problems, we see how a problem that goes unchecked for so long can lead to something quite catastrophic.
As the film begins, it may seem like it will be focused solely on Zachary Quinto's character, an ambitious math whiz who realizes the repercussions of his calculations; instead, the film follows wherever the story takes it, whether it's following Paul Bettany's gregarious trader or Spacey's character. This is the type of movie where Spacey could easily steal the focus of every scene, but he gives a relatively subdued performance that allows others to come to the forefront. This is most apparent with Bettany, who gives one of his better performances in a role well-suited for him, and the same can be said for Jeremy Irons as John Tuld, the company's President who shows up to make the tough decisions, many which Rogers and others openly disagree with. Other key players in the decisions include Simon Baker, Demi Moore and Aasif Mandvi as the upper management who refused to listen when Dale first mentioned the coming collapse, but their performances are fairly flat compared to the others.
Directing from his own solidly-written screenplay, J.C. Chandor is able to make a terrific looking film despite the minimal and mostly enclosed settings. Because the film is set in the financial world, there's a lot of financial terminology that will likely go over the heads of casual filmgoers, and even worse, much of the first hour of the film lacks any genuine emotion, particularly after Tucci's departure. It's really only when he returns briefly that things start improving.
This is a strong debut from J.C. Chandor, a rather intricate look at the inner-workings of a large financial firm and how various pieces fall into place during one specific catastrophe. There have been better movies set in this world including both "Wall Street" movies but for a rather contained ensemble drama, it generally works to get one more interested in that aspect of finance, though it's no "Inside Job."