Saturday, March 16, 2013

Short Take: Margin Call

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Writer-director J. C. Chandor’s 2011 debut feature, Margin Call, is a trim ensemble melodrama about an investment bank in crisis during the early days of the 2008 financial collapse. The film takes place over a 24-hour period. In the opening scenes, the bank’s chief risk analyst (Stanley Tucci) is laid off just as he uncovers a significant problem with the company’s mortgage-backed-security asset portfolio. His department protégé (Zachary Quinto) finishes the work later that night, and discovers that the bank is in immediate danger of insolvency. Word of the crisis quickly makes it up the chain-of-command, climaxing in a wee-hours meeting overseen by the bank’s CEO (Jeremy Irons). Plans are hatched to immediately divest the company of its toxic investments before buyers become wise to the assets' worthlessness. The various characters know they are engaging in a massive swindle, and they have to grapple with both the morality of their actions and the awareness that their professional reputations are going to be destroyed. The film is intelligent, absorbing, and well-paced, but it may seem pat and overly simplistic to viewers familiar with the ins and outs of the real-life banks’ actions during the 2008 crisis. (The fictional bank is not, as stated by some reviewers, based on Lehman Brothers, whose institutional problems were far more complex than what is depicted here.) Chandor assembled a dream cast for the production. Apart from Tucci, Quinto, and Irons, it includes Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Simon Baker, Demi Moore, and Mary McDonnell. Unfortunately, the characters don’t have particularly vivid personalities. Apart from Jeremy Irons, who delivers an amusingly hammy turn as the CEO, none of the actors makes much of an impression. The film accurately portrays the banally corrupt culture of the financial world of the early 21st century, but one wonders if that banality stood in the way of finding significant drama in the setting.

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