In this image released by Roadside Attractions, Zachary Quinto, left, and Penn Badgley are shown in a scene from "Margin Call." (AP Photo/Roadside Attractions, JoJo Whilden)
3 1/2 out of 4 stars
Movies made about unpleasant events -- whether good or bad -- made while the event is still taking place almost always tank; and for good reason. No one wants to pay to get bad news they can get for free on TV. Take it a step further: most movies about the Vietnam War -- the majority of which were made after the fact -- failed at the box office. Almost every movie about World War II made money. Why? The U.S. won World War II and lost in Vietnam. Americans aren't good about losing or watching other Americans lose.
Coming in a close second to the documentary "Inside Job" in terms of quality and delayed shock value, "Margin Call" is the only one of a handful of live-action movies about the 2008 financial meltdown that is worthy of your time and yes, even your money.
Wisely avoiding the same type of slick, overproduced melodrama that crippled "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps," writer/director J.C. Chandor instead opts for a dry, borderline-sterile tone. He includes a fair amount of financial industry insider buzz words and intricate explanations of mathematical formulas but never more than what is absolutely necessary to support the main plot.
On the surface a starchy and austere finance drama, "Margin Call" at its core is a thriller with a factual horror-like dread running through it. It is to the world financial industry what "The China Syndrome" was to the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster or "United 93" was to the September 11 attacks. You know what's about to happen but can't look away.
It takes place during a single 24-hour period on the eve of the 2008 market crash. On his way out the just-fired numbers cruncher Eric (Stanley Tucci) passes some data to his underling Peter (Zachary Quinto) with a blunt and ominous warning. After a few minutes, Peter realizes in company (referred to only as "the firm") is sitting on billions of dollars of toxic assets that will -- with absolute certainty -- bankrupt them in mere days.
Not wasting a second, Peter begins what will be a rapid ascent up the corporate food chain and the passing around of a molten-hot potato. There's the flip Englishman Will (Paul Bettany), whose exact duties are unclear, sales manger Sam (Kevin Spacey) the only guy with a conscience, Eric's suspect boss Sarah (Demi Moore), the soulless wunderkind COO Jared (Simon Baker) and the smiling grim-reaper CEO John (Jeremy Irons).
With the exception of Sam, no one is concerned with the long-term negative fallout of what's about to happen but rather how richly they can line their pockets before zero hour strikes. Perhaps because they knew this day was inevitable, no one panics or raises their voice, and with little debate they reach a best worst-case escape plan.
It says a great deal about rookie director Chandor and his script that he was able to attract so many A-list names to appear in the movie for what was relatively nickels and dimes. If this was a mainstream, big studio film, the cast alone would cost at least 10 times more than the just under $3.5 million budget. It also shows none of the typical strain of multiple production companies (six) and an army of producers (19 -- one of whom is Quinto).
Even with its brilliant acting, water-tight script and Chandor's appropriately detached direction, it's going to be a difficult job to convince many people to see "Margin Call." If you are one of the millions still boiling over what Wall Street did with malice of forethought in 2008 -- or are among those involved in the current globalwide protests, this movie will only fuel your anger and inflame your disgust. (Roadside Attractions)