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A worthy investment of time

Zachary Quinto and Penn Badgley in Margin Call

Every once in a while, a movie is released at a particularly zeitgeisty moment. To wit, consider the release serendipity of movies such as Fahrenheit 9/11 at the height of the second war in Iraq, or Milk during the Prop. 8 campaign. Now, enter Margin Call, a fictionalized dramatization of something like the collapse of Bear Stearns or Lehman Brothers.

This fortuitously apropos flick has arrived just as the Occupy Wall Street protests have solidified into an actual movement. In the 24 or so hours covered in the film’s storyline, we watch the worst instincts of the worst capitalists help propel Wall Street into the worst financial crisis in three generations. All of what the wannabe zeitgeist film Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps lacked – tension, subtlety, moral grayness and spectacular writing – is what makes Margin Call so successful.

The film opens with 80 percent of one floor of an investment bank being laid off. One of the more senior managers kicked to the curb is Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), who, as he is leaving in the elevator, tells his favorite underling Peter Sullivan (newly out Zachary Quinto) to finish a project that he was unable to finish before he was forced to pack up his belongings and leave the building. That night, instead of going out and celebrating not being fired, Peter starts looking through the files, and he discovers that Eric had realized that the firm was about to suffer for what led to our current real-life crisis; packaging mortgage-backed securities while knowing that the mortgages were worthless. If the market continued, as was likely, to fluctuate as it had, the firm would lose more in a single day than the market capitalization of the whole firm.

Peter calls in his friend Seth Bregman (Penn Badgely) and their new boss Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), who are agog. They call in their boss, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), who then calls his bosses, Jared Cohen (Simon Baker) and Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore), and then his boss, John Tuld (Jeremy Irons). Most of the rest of the film follows this band of overpaid, overdressed and overly arrogant gamblers, hucksters and secret nerds as they try to figure out how to save the company from ruin.

The discussions of the ethics of their behavior are surprisingly both lyrical and believable. Jeremy Irons does a self-justifying monologue toward the end of the film that is more captivating, and more terrifying, than any of his scenes in Reversal of Fortune (for which he won an Oscar). “It’s just money,” he says. “It’s made up.”

As an unscrupulous, British-accented securities trader, Paul Bettany has some moments that are similarly chilling; Will is a younger, crasser version of Tuld. Their portrayals of worst-case-scenario capitalists are exactly what Wall Street haters believe financiers are like, but because of the smart, razor-sharp writing and the expert acting, these characters are not cartoonish.

Kevin Spacey, in the closest thing to a lead role, is uncharacteristically not hammy, and as the conflicted, exhausted career salesman who must do Tuld’s bidding, he is perhaps the most sympathetic character. When he realizes that in order to save Tuld’s company, he must destroy his reputation, he notes that he’s been at the firm for more than three decades. And for what? Money? If he’d been a ditch digger, “At least there’d be holes in the ground to show for it.”

Margin Call
Written and directed by J.C. Chandor
Starring Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons
and Zachary Quinto
Rated R
At Landmark Hillcrest
and Landmark La Jolla

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Posted by on Nov 1, 2011. Filed under Movie Review. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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