Wall Street is occupied, and so are cities around the globe, so it seems odd to be watching Margin Call, a film that fictionalizes the beginning of the recent financial meltdown, because it humanizes, to a degree, the 1 percent that the rest of us want to tar and feather. The cast is top notch, but the drama veers back and forth between feeling real and trying to gamble with our emotions, which, I suppose, is a decent metaphor for the stock market in general. Still, one wonders whether we're ready for a movie that casts the folks who got bailed out in a sensitive light.
Zachary Quinto, who also produced the film, plays Peter Sullivan, a young risk-assessment analyst at an unnamed Wall Street investment bank. Times are tough and people are getting laid off, and when Peter's boss, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), is given a pink slip, he hands Peter a flash drive and tells him to look at what he was working on. turns out Eric saw the writing on the wall, and soon Peter realizes that the firm is on the verge of being completely overextended—that perhaps this bank, modeled on the likes of Goldman Sachs or Lehman Brothers, isn't too big to fail.
So, Peter teams up with another young turk, Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley), to run his findings up theCinemas of Wall he's mess conveniently in stand. becomes holds feature flagpole. Soon their boss, Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), is involved, and his boss, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), is involved, and his boss, Jared Cohen (Simon Baker), and, yes, even his boss, John Tuld, the company's CEO (Jeremy Irons), is involved. The entire thing takes place during the course of one night as a conference room full of 1-percenters and wannabe 1-percenters determine that the market is about to crash, a meltdown is about to happen and they need to decide what to do about it. Being an investment bank, it holds a huge number of mortgage-backed securities that are about to plummet in value, unless they can be sold to the rest of the market before the situation becomes clear. That, of course, would be seriously unethical, if not illegal, but it's the only way the firm can stay afloat. And, it should be said, it's the only way each of them can maintain a rich-and-famous lifestyle.
Writer-director J.C. Chandor has structured his movie—which opens Friday, Oct. 21, at Hillcrest Cinemas and AMC La Jolla—as essentially a series of conversations between different people on the Wall Street food chain. His dialogue is crisp, and he's clearly a student of David Mamet. The financial mess is certainly simplified, but Chandor's characters conveniently ask for things to be explained to them in terms so simple even the middle class can understand. As the hours unfold and the financial meltdown becomes more certainty than speculation, the film holds your interest, primarily because this first-time feature filmmaker has netted such a talented cast.
Spacey is very good, and when he spars with Irons over the ethical issues surrounding their decisions, sparks fly. Perhaps best of all, however, is Tucci. He's a thoroughly reliable actor, but here, in this small role, he brings the pathos and humanity of a person forced out for the wrong reasons at the wrong time who's pulled back in when his help is needed. He's angry but not vengeful, practical and disgusted with himself at the same time. His character is the face of the recession, a well-earning professional who'll have a hard time finding a place to work when everything shakes out, a guy who might lose his Brooklyn brownstone and who'll have a tough time keeping his kids in private schools.
It's a very real tragedy, one that has befallen a lot of people. At the same time, it's a 1-percenter problem, and if you're part of the other 99 percent—well, you may find it hard to sympathize