Margin Call is the movie Oliver Stone tried to make with Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, only a lot less flashy and melodramatic — and sharper, smarter and with a much stronger cast. The feature film debut of writer-director J.C. Chandor, which often imparts a whiff of David Mamet and could have easily been staged as a play, is set over the course of a tense 24 hours at an investment firm (loosely based on Lehman Brothers) in 2008, just before the financial crisis exploded.
When the film opens, corporate hatchet men (and women) are already patrolling the halls, swinging their downsizing axes. Among those laid off is a risk-management executive (Stanley Tucci) who claims to have been working on something critically important but is asked to vacate the premises immediately. Before he leaves, he secretly hands off his research to one of his young analysts, Peter (Zachary Quinto), with the ominous warning “Be careful.”
Working late into the night, Peter finishes the research his former boss had begun and stares at his computer screen with something tantamount to horror. He calls in his co-worker Seth (Penn Badgley) and their supervisor Will (Paul Bettany), both of whom had been out on the town getting plastered. This time, the bad news rolls uphill, and soon managers from the highest levels of the company are in the office — including the big boss himself, John Tuld, played with theatrical relish by Jeremy Irons — scrambling to figure out how to keep the firm from imploding financially the moment the stock market opens in the morning.
The solution they come up with is one of pure survival — a scorched-earth, every man for himself answer to an impossible situation. Margin Call doesn’t talk down to the audience — the characters sling around phrases such as “subprime mortgages” and “volatility models” at machine-gun speed — and one of the running gags in the movie is that the higher up the corporate ladder you go, the less managers understand the business they’re in (“Speak as you would to a young child — or a golden retriever,” Irons, the draconian CEO, asks of Quinto, the genius analyst with a degree in rocket science.)
Margin Call benefits greatly from a fantastic ensemble cast, who bring human dimensions to characters that could have easily become Gordon Gekko caricatures. Kevin Spacey delivers his best performance in ages as the loyal mid-level manager wrestling with his conscience over what his beloved firm is about to do. Demi Moore conveys a brittle, silent panic as the risk expert whose investment formulas were the cause for the calamity her company now faces. And Bettany and Badgley are terrific as foot soldiers willing to do whatever is required of them. In one memorable scene, Badgley (who is constantly nosing around to find out how much his co-workers make) asks Bettany how he could spend his $2.5 million salary in one year.
That’s the sort of question many people in the audience would love to ask Wall Street hotshots, and Bettany’s detailed answer is credible and eye-opening. Margin Call doesn’t demonize its characters, nor does it absolve them of their sins. The movie simply shows, without judgment or anger, how our economic crisis came to be — a tempest caused not just by imperious Masters of the Universe, but also ordinary men and women much like the rest of us.
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Zachary Quinto, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Penn Badgley, Simon Baker, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci.
Writer-director: J.C. Chandor.
Producers: Joe Jenckes, Michael Benaroya, Robert Ogden Barnum.
A Roadside Attractions release. Running time: 107 minutes. Vulgar language. Opens Friday Oct. 28 in Miami-Dade: Intracoastal, Sunset Place, Coral Gables Art Cinema; in Broward: Gateway, Sunrise; in Palm Beach: Living Room, Delray.