Movie Review: “Margin Call”

Written by Brent Holmes December 26, 2011

Otherwise known as Horrible Office Spaces 2.

Nearly three years since the recession in 2008 and there has still not been a great film depicting the unbelievable evil that drove Wall Street bankers to crash the economy. Margin Call is the latest in a collection of films that try to explain or depict these bankers but unlike Michael Moore’s documentary Capitalism: A Love Story; last year’s Best Documentary, Inside Job; a sequel to Wall Street; and the recent Justin Timberlake movie, In Time; the film manages to go a bit deeper into the flawed mentality of capitalism.

The film opens with a mass firing of employees from a company intended to represent the Lehman Brothers. Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) is fired on the verge of finding a flaw in the companies trading system that could crash the entire economy. He passes the information onto one of his lower level genius employees Peter (Zachary Quinto) who finishes his work.

What follows is nearly an hour of Peter’s employers going up the ladder as they realize the depth of their problem. Yet, the higher they go up the ladder, the more it becomes apparent that they have no idea what to do about it. This point is most poignantly illustrated when John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), one of the highest level executives of the company has to ask Peter to explain his findings in the simplest terms possible, “as if you were telling a child”.

This is a film with a massive cast of characters. While the story starts with Peter, it quickly shifts to focusing on his boss Sam (Kevin Spacey). Sam is an interesting character, he has a conscience and struggling to deal with following orders versus doing what is right. Unfortunately, his dying dog does not deepen the theme of the plot or character and if it does, it is not a clear or well used theme.

The film recalls Office Space and Horrible Bosses making Quinto look exactly like Peter in the former (even giving the characters the same name), and putting Spacey in a similar position (but very different role) as his earlier work this year. Meanwhile, Seth (Penn Badgley) and Will (Paul Bettany) on how much their respective bosses paint them as blissfully unconcerned with the threat to the economy until it affects them. These are effective parallels setting up the material as the darkest of comedies.

There are some great monologues delivered by Jeremy Irons and Paul Bettany towards the films third act. They take a similar tone to Chris Cooper’s corruption monologue in Syriana. These monologues have great insight into the capitalist mentality  and provide a horrifying humanization of characters apathetic to the consequences of their actions.

Despite these insights, where Margin Call fails is its presentation of the crisis is presenting these consequences. It’s easy to watch a film presenting the sins of the upper class, but we have yet to see a film that really presents the disaster on the ordinary person. Michael Moore’s Capitalism came close, but its presentation was based around constructing a political narrative rather than a narrative based around the struggles of the ordinary person. The film has a strong documentary style feel that benefits its theme well. It is J.C. Chandor’s first feature film and hopefully his future films will keep a similar quality.

Margin Call premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and has recently been screening at independent cinemas around Southern Ontario. It is definitely not the best film made about the economic recession, but it is still a well acted film with a few strong insights into the lives of those responsible for that crisis. However, like so many of these films, it fails to go deeper into the untenability of capitalism.

My Rating: 7/10

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About Brent Holmes

Brent Holmes is a Film Studies and English Major attending Huron University College at the University of Western Ontario where he is working towards a PhD in Film Studies. He currently writes for We Eat Films and The Western Gazette (on the latter, he serves as Arts & Life editor).

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