Despite its engrossing hook, Margin Call quickly loses steam...
The financial crisis of 2008 has been such a dramatic event that it easily provides good material for movies. So far, there are three examples I can think of. There's the Michael Moore documentary Capitalism: A Love Story, which illustrates capitalism gone wrong. We've also been presented with the documentary film Inside Job, which explains the nitty-gritty of the crisis very well. And for fictional Hollywood films about the same subject matter, there's Oliver Stone's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. All of these films are very good and naturally inspired me to wait for more films, fictional or not, that explore the same topic.
When I heard about Margin Call, I thought it would be something worth seeing, not just because it fictionalizes a Wall Street firm at the start of the financial crisis, but also because it would provide a new perspective by centering entirely on the people inside that firm. But now that I've seen it, I must say that it wasn't as great as I expected. Sure, it has a cast of well known stars, including Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Simon Baker, Penn Badgley, Demi Moore, and Stanley Tucci, playing various people in this fictional Wall Street firm. But the script and its execution, it seem, could be a whole lot better.
For one thing, certain details of the story that I'd like to see explained are not. In the beginning of the movie, financial executive Eric Dale (Tucci) gets fired for reasons unknown. Shortly before he is out of the building for good, he hands a flash drive to Peter Sullivan (Quinto) to look over. Rather than hang out at a nightclub with his colleagues, Sullivan spends his after-work hours looking over the project Dale was working on. Eventually, he comes across something that, from his quiet but startling reaction, could potentially trigger something catastrophic.
The movie tries to build suspense here by having Sullivan tell his colleague Seth Bregman (Badgley) and his boss Will Emerson (Bettany) to come back to the office, without even providing a quick summary of the discovery to give them something to think about on the way back to the office. Even the moment when the three are in front of Sullivan's computer monitor could be elucidated a little better. Yes, Sullivan talks about some kind of market volatility index that has gone out of its acceptable safety limit. But for many of us outside the financial world, all we know is that something bad has happened, without even understanding why it's so bad.
Then this sequence seems to repeat itself. Emerson calls his boss, Sam Rogers (Spacey), who then notifies his boss, Jared Cohen (Baker). I admit that it was rather boring to watch the chain of command coming together as a group, though it's somewhat insightful, if it is true that Wall Street firms have a long chain of command where every supervisor doesn't know anyone who is at least two ranks below. What's amusing, though, is how Rogers and Cohen ask that the nature of the problem be explained in simple terms, as if they, the supervisors, are incompetent.
Now the characters are in a boardroom along with other people, including risk management officer Sarah Robinson (Moore) and the top executive John Tuld (Irons). Just when you think the movie will finally get interesting, Tuld also asks that the problem be described in simple language. I will say that Jeremy Irons isn't too bad here, compared with the rest of the cast whose performances are pretty much average. His character also states that there are three ways to get ahead in Wall Street: be first, be smarter, or cheat. But putting all minor compliments aside, I still thought the boardroom scene didn't really take anyone (meaning the characters, the whole firm, and even the movie itself) anywhere.
In fact, the rest of the movie goes pretty much nowhere. A whole chunk of the second half of the movie, taking place between midnight and sunrise, involves scenes of dialogue that, to me, seem to function only as filler material. There is a late scene where Rogers gives a pep talk to his staff, inspiring them to do the best they can in selling assets just to prevent the firm from going under. What happens after that? A little dialogue between Rogers and Tuld in a near empty restaurant. Then the final scene with Rogers mourning his pet dog, which, in my mind, really doesn't fit into the movie.
Once the credits rolled, I was stunned. Was this supposed to be a Wall Street drama that would help us understand or sympathize with the inside world of finance? If that was the intention of the filmmakers, then I'm afraid they haven't achieved that. The only thing I got out of Margin Call was that, like the characters in the movie, Wall Street insiders are in a bubble, in their own world without any notion about what's going on outside their firm's walls. But surely, there are some in finance who have concerns about home foreclosures, consumer debt, unemployment, government bailouts, excessive CEO bonuses, jobs being sent overseas, and the Occupy Wall Street protests (springing up in New York, NY; Denver, CO; Oakland, CA; and numerous other cities around the world). Margin Call may be set at the beginning of the crisis, but couldn't the characters spend a lot more time on Main Street to get a realistic perspective on things?
For all of these reasons, I can't give Margin Call even a marginal rating, positive (6 out of 10) or negative (5 out of 10). The plot and characters are underdeveloped. The same is true for the supposed theme, about being first, being smarter, or cheating to stay ahead of the game. Just because one character says it doesn't mean the movie has a theme to remember. It has to be explored in depth through actions all the way throughout the movie. Therefore, among films about the 2008 financial crisis, Margin Call is not first and not smarter than other films. It only cheats the audience out of a good movie experience.
For more information about Margin Call, visit the Internet Movie Database.