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risky business [movie review :: margin call]

given its impact, it was really just a matter of time until someone made a movie about the 2008 stock market collapse and how the economy was undermined by overvalued mortgage securities. certainly, there have already been documentary films made that deal with the subject, but no one has really tried to distill the drama of the build up of financial mistakes that precipitated the near downfall of the entire north american banking system until first-time writer/ director j.c. chandor stepped up.

as a writer and someone who has worked on a film, i want to give chandor his props. "margin call" is incredibly ambitious- a film about a major event that most people still don't understand. he sets himself up from the start with the unenviable task of having to make the trading of mortgage securities understandable while placing his words in the mouths of characters who are supposedly experts in the field. and i admire the fact that he shies away from over-explaining; the basic lines are there, but you aren't going to come away from this movie with a profound understanding of securities financing if you don't have one already. in this regard, i'd compare it to "all the president's men" a film that likewise deals with a complex true story of loss of faith in institutions. at the end of the film, you aren't likely to be able to draw an organisational chart of the events, but you know what's going on.

i also salute him for being able to assemble the kind of cast that normally exists only in the dreams of first-time writers/ directors. kevin spacey, jeremy irons, the under-rated stanley tucci, paul bettany, demi moore... these are not the sort of actors one normally gets to work with the first time one gets behind the camera. obviously, a lot of people saw a lot of strengths in the script and the potential for it to be a great picture.



as with a lot of films that aim very high, "margin call" is flawed and its flaws can also be laid squarely at j.c. chandor's door. to go back to my "all the president's men" comparison, that film works because it paces itself very deliberately, creating a kind of slow burn that allows the viewer to digest the information being given and to take in the nuances of the dialogue-heavy script. "margin call" is likewise very wordy, which is what you would expect from a serious film on the origins of the financial crisis, but the pacing is all off. it feels like you're in the passenger seat of a stick shift car with a driver who's only driven automatic. the story lurches forward from the outset, but stalls out regularly when the action stops for one of the characters to give a speech or engage in a weighty sort of dialogue that borders on the pompous.

the story is already asking the audience for some suspension of disbelief, predicated as it is on the idea that the impending financial crisis was uncovered and "activated" by one company over the course of less than twenty-four hours. you need that precision of focus in order to make the story intelligible, so i'm willing to grant him the "this is how it might have happened" leeway. the problem is that much of the script comes off as oddly ponderous, which just goes to undermine the audience's agreement to look the other way on the basis for the plot. the characters wax too philosophical too often to seem authentic.

i do give chandor and his actors credit for not taking the easy way out and making some characters into monsters. jeremy irons, while he chews the scenery with restrained glee, could easily have been hateful, but his choices on how he plays his character- the boisterous president of the company in question- as well as the lines chandor has written for him, show him to be a true icon of laissez-faire capitalism without making him into a cartoon. he has no moral opinion on his actions whatsoever, but, in one of the better speeches in the film, explains what he does as simply profiting from what the economic system has always done on its own and that success does not necessarily come from being smarter than everyone else or [despite what we might all think] being underhanded, but from having the testicular fortitude to be the one who sets things in motion.

of the rest of the cast, spacey is reliably excellent as a long-time manager who knows to keep his head down and evidently thrives because he's the only person in the company who has a real facility with other people. tucci is not given much to do, but performs admirably. paul bettany seems to be in a little over his head as the decent but covetous will emerson, although some of this may be due to uneven character development in the script. [after repeatedly highlighting to his resentfulness at having been passed over for promotions, he seems oddly loyal to his boss spacey. these things happen, but why call such clear attention to the first trait if you're just going to drop it?] demi moore and simon baker play opposite pillars just below irons on the pyramid [the latter being the focus of much of bettany's jealousy and the closest thing to a really bad guy we meet] and while both are decent in the group scenes, they seem too stiff when the focus moves to them.

zachary quinto [who is also a producer on the film] holds his own against the titans as the boy wonder whose algorithm-atics  reveals the peril they are facing. his character, though, while being crucial to the story, is left undeveloped. although he evinces an awareness of the implications of his work and some sense of responsibility early on, we never get a deeper view of him as he's simply brought out to explain his findings to the higher-ups and then fades from view as the corporate politics kick into overdrive. it's either an unorthodox stylistic move or it's another sign of the unevenness of the script itself where certain parts of the ensemble cast are not strategically placed outside of the action for a reason related to the story, but are simply forgotten in the rush to include revealing glimpses at other characters.

it is an incredible feat, getting your first film made on this scale, with such a cast and with so much creative control, but at the end of the film, i can't help but think that chandor might have benefited from a little more guidance. the script has grand ambitions and solid potential and the film that emerges is more reflective of the former and as a result, falls short. it's an interesting watch, but not compelling.

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