[WARNING: This is a comprehensive review of the film "Margin Call." If you would prefer to not know anything about the film until a wider release then please do not continue reading.]
It wasn't a bad year for the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. There was a Kevin Smith film which experimented with a new genre for the director… horror, a film named "Co-Dependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same," the event winning documentary on the life of the late 3-time F1 World Champion Ayrton Senna (no James Hunt film this year), and then there was "Margin Call," aka "Wall Street 2 for smart people," according to the director J.C. Chandor. Toss in some world class skiing, a few private concerts, and a bunch of drunken tourists and I think you have an excellence event at hand.
"Margin Call" takes place on the eve of the financial crisis over a 24 hour period at an unnamed investment bank which has just discovered that it made some sour MBS deals over time and needs some serious damage control. Sounds like you already know this story. Guess what… you do. Couple that with a banal plot that really doesn't follow a dramatic formula and one of the most anticlimactic endings I've seen in a long time.
The film was shot on location in NYC, but most of the film takes place within the trading floors and boardrooms of the bank. You wouldn't know the film took place in Manhattan unless it wasn't for all the panoramic shots of the city used as bumpers between scenes, you know, like an E! network or MTV reality TV series. That being said I did find the cinematography and lighting to be well done, it did fine for setting up the atmosphere and tone of the film. The sets were also well built… for anyone who has ever stepped on a trading floor of a bank this set looks like one. Now if only I had enough praise for the story and characters.
The film opens with senior man Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) being fired and handing his USB drive to fellow associate Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto). Peter studies the contents of his new gift only to discover that it reveals the ultimate demise of the bank and perhaps Wall Street capitalism. From there the story moves on to warning more senior people up the chain-of-command of this potential disaster until CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) gets involved by landing via helicopter, in true corporate fashion, on the bank's roof in the middle of the night. From there you get 3:00 AM boardroom meetings on what the plan is going forward, what caused this, whose fault is it, etc. Needless to say, there is a lot of dialogue that really doesn't mean much and just reiterates that "the situation is bad" and "we make lots of cash."
Beyond the boring language, you also get a blend of office politics between trading floor senior manager Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) and senior risk management officer Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore); in fact her supporting role seems to knock heads with everyone but we really don't know why, her character is just filler. The film goes to great lengths to show how disconnected and disorganized the banking industry is (or corporate America), especially in its management. "Explain this to me like I'm a child," says CEO John Tuld when wanting an explanation on how his bank became so overleveraged.
The film did take a marginal stab a "banking humor" if you will. This was mostly done with clever insults, diverse use of the word "fuck" or "fock" if your character is English, and one transition scene to the strip club. The audience did laugh a lot more than was warranted but you can't fault them when a good 65-70% of them have a beer in hand. I guess this style of humor was used to keep the audience in check if they weren't quite up to speed on financial lingo; which the WSO audience wouldn't have trouble parsing.
There is also this blatant negative portrayal on the level of pretension in Wall Street culture by how out-of-reality some of the characters are. This is best exemplified in analyst Seth Bregman's (Penn Badgley) clear obsession with making big cash in his career and there's the cocky senior trader Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), the resident Englishman, who drops numbers on his annual pay in the millions of dollars and what he spent it on; at one point we see that he drives an Aston Martin. In fact there are a lot of big numbers mentioned in this film, more so for shock value I believe – "That's a ton of money," "Those crooks," "Do they really make that much?" were some whispered comments from the audience when compensation came up in the film. Moments like this in the film don't feel natural. It seems as if many of these characters are just playing into stereotypes that we have all read about in Liars Poker and Monkey Business. These characters are not honest, they are not real, and they are too shallow… which segues to my next point.
Where "Margin Call" really misses out is in its character development. It is difficult to even care about any of these characters because they are so dull and paper-thin in complexity; which ultimately makes for some sketchy screenwriting: why is Demi Moore's character a bitch, why do Kevin Spacey and Stanley Tucci barely seem to be the only grounded characters, does Paul Bettany's character have a small penis? These are some points that are never even touched on because the film is so caught up in showing us how superficial everyone is. There really isn't a main character that the story uses for an anchor so it's just moving from one character to another without any real substance taken from them. Kevin Spacey (Stanley Tucci being a close runner up) probably has the most multi-dimensional character (overstatement) of them all but it doesn't even come close to a Keyser Söze or Lester Burham; two very multifaceted and well written characters.
Most of the characters give some defining monologue that I suppose is meant to be thought provoking or full of wisdom but most of it doesn't really register. At one point, Jeremy Irons gives a speech which almost has traces of Gordon Gekko's "greed is good" bit. Stanley Tucci's character does have one good monologue where he reminisces of a time when he worked as a civil engineer on a bridge and reflects on the impact that bridge made to its community. It's a good scene and it was my favorite moment of the film. Its meaning is obvious, though.
Another big letdown is the climax of the film, or lack thereof, because there is no given sense of urgency or importance of what is about to happen throughout the first hour and thirty minutes or so. Up to this point, characters have mostly been exchanging mindless dialogue, talking about their money and pushing blame to one another. The "climatic" point of the film is selling off the MBS to other banks… You get some panoramic scenes of Manhattan while listening to salesmen and traders on the phones get rid of their crusty derivatives in a deceiving fashion; that's the big moment the film worked up to… and on top of that, the outcome of all this trading is hardly even acknowledged. What happened? It's as if because much of the audience already knows the outcome of the financial meltdown it's not worth piecing together in the film. Well that assumes a lot and completely takes away from all of the tension that was supposed to be built up into the earlier parts of the film. I don't see why Chandor would use this approach to end the film. Anticlimactic doesn't even begin to describe how much of a letdown this film's conclusion was.
As with many Sundance films you get the opportunity to meet the director and actors after the screening. Unfortunately, none of the actors were present, but writer/director J.C. Chandor was there to share his thoughts and answer questions on the film. As brought up at the top of this review Mr. Chandor did state that "Margin Call" was "Wall Street 2 for smart people," according one critic, he says. I thought that was a little presumptuous to say, but earlier that day the film was picked up by Lionsgate so maybe he was in an especially brash mood… you can't blame him, that's a big accomplishment. According to Chandor this film was purely made as a statement against Wall Street greed and corporate America. "These guys make mindless bets, make their millions and completely ruin the livelihoods of many Americans," was one bit. In fact, much of the discussion was his opinion against anything Wall Street related and how they are the sole creator of destruction in our economy (which by all means is fine to talk about, he has the floor). I thought that was somewhat of a linear approach to viewing the financial crisis, though. No doubt that Wall Street had an impact but he's leaving out many other variables in the situation… and I thought I came to see a film, a story, a thriller, not some purely politically motivated 2 hour op-ed. Knowing that his motivation for creating the film was primarily for a political statement kind of diminishes the sincerity of his poor screen writing ("Philadelphia" was a political statement… but that screenplay was golden). He also went on about how the big investment banks steal top talent (engineers, chemists, physicists, mathematicians, etc.) from the nation's top schools. I believe Zachary Quinto and Stanley Tucci's characters are a representation of this because it is mentioned in the film how they were both engineers prior to landing their Wall Street gig (they did it for better pay). The 15 minutes spent listening to him was very interesting to say the least and it really changed the way I viewed the message of the film.
In all honesty I really wanted to like this film and had high hopes for it walking in. It was also one of the bigger productions (for Sundance standards) and had at least 900+ people showing up for the screening. Seating capacity was at 750ish so a lot of people were turned away. I'm a big Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons fan and I'm taking a liking to Stanley Tucci, but this film didn't sit well with me. The people I was sitting next to during the film and the people I had dinner with after the screening felt the same way. It just wasn't very good. Simply put, the story wasn't engaging at all and it didn't utilize the cast very well. It needed a main character (Spacey, Tucci, or Quinto) to pull everything together and it just wasn't there. I'm giving this film 2 Silver Bananas out of 4.
I welcome any comments and questions and you are free to PM me those if you choose. Also, I strongly recommend anyone reading this to check out the Sundance Film Festival sometime. It's an excellent event for travelers and makes for a great vacation.
("Margin Call" should be getting a wider release later this year. Be on the lookout for it and make your own opinion of it)