Like The Ides of March, Margin Call is a film that attempts to pull back the curtains to give the American people a look at “what really is going on.” Where Ides was a look at the corruption of political candidates and campaigns, Margin Call is a look at why the economy took a big, stinky crap on itself, resulting in the ongoing recession (I don’t care that the experts claimed that the recession ended months ago, we’re still there). More specifically, Margin Call focuses on one financial firm during the first twenty-four hours of the stock market crash of 2008 and effectively blames the whole mess on them. Luckily, due to the complete absence of any marketing whatsoever, nobody will see this film and we won’t have to worry about this false accusation gaining any traction.
(Side note: This film was first shown at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2011. I watch a lot of television and movies and I have not seen a single preview or mention of this film in the last ten months.)
From what I could find, this film is loosely based on the financial firm, Lehman Brothers, which collapsed shortly after 2008 and filed for bankruptcy. But to blame them for our current mess would be like blaming you or me for a water shortage because we watered our lawns one extra day. It was a group effort by all the banks and they happened to be one that didn’t survive. This film hints at the real issues and causes, never explains them, and takes the easy road by vilifying a single firm and its CEO.
Zachary Quinto plays Peter, a rocket-scientist/physicist who works for the firm’s risk management department because “frankly, the money is better” (Peter’s answer to the CEO upon being asked why he works there). The film begins with the firm firing nearly everyone in Peter’s department and Peter is handed a file by his ex-boss, Eric (Stanley Tucci), who asks Peter to take a look at it and “be careful.” This warning is supposed to be the beginning of the tension in the film and is followed with lots of people using the phrase “tying up loose ends.” However, no tension ever builds because nobody is killed, nobody commits suicide, nobody is even threatened with harm, nor does the crisis itself cause any tension because we already know what’s going to happen. It would be like expecting people to be tense during Titanic only because the boat was sinking, and without the character development of Jack and Rose.
Because Peter is a super-genius, he figures out something in the file that means the firm is in deep trouble. This highlights the main problem with this film – it stays above the audience’s head by never explaining what Peter figured out in terms anyone can understand. Peter calls his coworker, Seth (Penn Badgely), and manager, Will (Paul Bettany), and they return to see the bad news. This leads to more calls as the news is shared up the chain of command to Sam (Kevin Spacey), Jared (Simon Baker), Sarah (Demi Moore), and finally, the CEO, John Tuld (Jeremy Irons). All of these people, in addition to the rest of the firm’s board, gather together and decide what to do and this is the vast majority of the film. To say this film was slow is to say the ocean is a little damp.
The characters spend their time dancing around the issue and daring each other to explain the situation in English, which is never done. At one point, Tuld even tells Peter to speak to him “…as if I were a seven-year old or a golden retriever.” Unfortunately, Peter ignores this request and makes vague references to securities, investments, risk, limits and models that have been broken, and mortgages. This is a continuing theme, as Will, Sam, and Jared, all make the same request, and we as an audience get the same response. The characters are vague, they look at computer screens facing away from us, and in the end, they all magically understand the issues while pissing us off in the process. When the firm decides to sell all of their assets in a single morning, we become even more lost because we don’t know what the term “margin call” means other than it has something to do with the stock market.
To be fair, I do understand what the film is trying to do, and it is somewhat successful. They want us to believe that CEOs and Wall Street are a bunch of greedy douche bags who not only despise the 99% of people who don’t bathe in cash, but that those people want them to be that way. One scene even has Will verbalizing this sentiment to Seth while driving around in his Bentley. On this level, the film succeeds, but really didn’t have to try too hard since we already hate those people. What’s ingenuous about the film is that they demonize these firms for working within the rules of the system, when they should have been demonizing them for being stupid with our money and only worrying about short-term gains. Not to mention that the real villains in this whole economic mess are the mortgage lenders who gave loans to people who obviously could not afford them and the agencies responsible for governing those lenders for not regulating them. It was those loans, packaged together in vast quantities to reduce the damage done by people defaulting on their payments, that these firms were trading. Once people did start defaulting, also in vast quantities, these packages became worthless and that is the reason why our movie firm needed to get rid of them as soon as possible.
Beyond this star-studded cast, the movie doesn’t have a lot to offer. Everything about it is slow, from the development of the crisis, to the dialogue, to the explanations, even to finding Eric, who goes missing after being fired. To top it off, the entire movie spans a period of 24 hours without managing to ever feel urgent. The movie has been billed as a thriller, but with no threats of violence and no characters with whom to sympathize, there is nothing that makes you even a little tense. Luckily, you probably have never heard of this film, so you don’t have to worry about it.
Rating: Ask for all of your money back. We are still in a recession, you know.