Mining theater from a bank’s imbalance sheet
The first person fired by the big investment bank in “Margin Call’’ is a risk analyst. His name is Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), he’s been researching some bad news, and, freshly sacked, promptly disappears the way some animals head for the hills before a natural disaster. The disaster here is hardly natural, and the movie, by a first-time writer-director named J.C. Chandor, hunkers down in the bank’s risk management wing in order to spin drama from invisible money and an assortment of actors attempting to mine theater from banker jargon. In the case of Jeremy Irons playing the aloof English billionaire who owns the bank, that’s dinner theater. But it’s of the highest caliber.
Irons seems to appreciate the material’s ripeness and dramatic thinness enough to limbo under the top. The central suspense involves how to proceed with the news that the bank’s projected losses are greater than its worth. What should it tell its shareholders? Whose heads should roll? Can they get Eric Dale back into the building for verification? The scenes cover about 36 hours and shuttle among a handful of executives, brokers, and analysts, as they point fingers, strategize, fret, self-defend, and more.
The severe imbalance between argot and emotion makes it impossible to care much about most of what we see. Even though some of the actors asked to make us care are very good - like Tucci, Irons, Paul Bettany, and Kevin Spacey, who runs the risk-management department. There are also parts for Demi Moore, Simon Baker, and Zachary Quinto, who is one of the film’s producers, and has both an insinuating way with quiet and eyebrows that share a parent with Salvador Dalí’s mustache. Chandor situates them in the conference rooms, elevators, rooftops, offices, and escalators of a midtown Manhattan skyscraper.
Occasionally, you expect what’s brewing to boil over, to turn into “Glengarry Glen Ross’’ or a screed that Paddy Chayefsky might have written. But the movie proceeds in an almost funereal manner, as neither a persuasive bid for character-based empathy (the fat cats are being laid off, too!) nor an attempt - through farce, satire, or melodrama - to rile or entertain us. Spacey does look primed to go off, even as he helps literalize the script’s unfortunate metaphor for accomplishment. The movie also misuses Moore, who doesn’t appear to have aged a day since playing a different corporate shark in “Disclosure,’’ a stupid movie that’s a lot more fun to watch than this.
What you sense most is Chandor’s ambivalence both as a citizen and as a filmmaker. He’s given Bettany a strong speech about the hypocrisy of consumer anger. At some point, a young career analyst, played by Penn Badgley, breaks down in tears at the prospect of his dream drying up. I think we’re meant to find this moving, Chandor’s attempt to humanize a social class that a swelling segment of the population is currently devoting a great deal of its time to protest. It’s a worthy undertaking. I just don’t know that “Margin Call’’ is for those people. It’s actually for the men and women who’ll see Badgley’s character’s wet face and recognize some of themselves. It’s a movie to show the financial industry what it did to undermine the world economy and that some of it was wrong. For everyone else - anyone craving an outraged film meant to stir outrage in us - there’s Charles Ferguson’s volcanic documentary indictment, the Oscar-winning “Inside Job.’’
“Margin Call’’ is never dull. But it’s never more than that, either. This is a movie you’ll remember for its inertia- a bunch of actors standing around. The men and women here appear to be just what they invent: financial tools.