Sunday, 11 March 2012


Becker Films
Now Showing

J.C. Chandor's directorial debut Margin Call arrives with the distinction of an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, a nomination it no doubt earned for making a complex subject -- commodities trading and the on-set of the GFC -- easy to understand as well as giving it a somewhat human face.

And no doubt my natural antipathy for all things economics is the reason why the film never fully engaged me.

For in spite its impressive cast -- Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci, Jeremy Irons, and Zachary Quinto -- its even handed treatment of the Wall Street types responsible for the GFC (traders are people too!), and its ability to make these financial goings-on both accessible and almost thriller-like, Margin Call still had me at arms length.

When Eric Dale (Tucci) is unceremoniously let go from his post with the investment bank he's been with for two decades, he passes on information to a young risk analyst, Peter Sullivan (Quinto), suggesting he take a look at the numbers but with the warning to "be careful".

Sullivan does just that, doesn't like what he sees, and after informing his next in command, Will Emerson (Bettany), who in turn informs his senior, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), sets off a panic within the ivory-lined walls of the boardroom of the (fictional) bank they work for.

Seems the company has been repeatedly trading outside of their risk parameters (or something: economics, not my forte) and it's now only a matter of time before it catches up with them, which isn't necessarily news to bank execs, Jared Cohen (Moore) or Sarah Robertson (Baker).

But when the Board finds out, the Head, John Tuld (Irons, hamming it up; close your eyes and you'll hear Scar from The Lion King) decides they should stop buying and sell all their assets for as much as they can get. The downside? They will be creating a economic black hole the likes of which Wall Street, and the world, has never seen.

All of this action, which takes place over a 24-hour period, and mostly on the one floor of a New York office high rise, plays out like a thriller though instead of action set pieces we get dialogue -- a lot of dialogue -- and a lot of exposition. So much so, that at times Margin Call felt more like an HBO telemovie, or even a stage play, than a cinematic feature.

Which brings us back to that Original Screenplay nomination. Deserving? I don't think so, not when you have a character explaining his role within the company to another character who does virtually the same job. The film also ends with arguably the most heavy-handed metaphor since Scorsese had a rat make a last minute cameo in The Departed (2006).

That metaphor involves a spade and Kevin Spacey, giving his best performance in years as a man stuck between a rock and hard place upon realising he mortgaged his integrity many financial years ago.

Spacey is also the best in show among the solid cast, who make Margin Call a solid if not enriching investment.

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