Berlin 2011 Review: MARGIN CALL - Cheap Looking, Heavy-Handed & Tonally Inconsistent

Margin Call, a first feature by writer-director JC Chandor, is the latest in a recent slurry of films about the 2008 financial crisis. This time, however, we are shown the stockbrokers as helpless and slightly tragic fellow victims rather than as speculative sharks and cynical cads - something that is helped by a game and likable cast which includes Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany, Demi Moore, Zachary Quinto and Stanley Tucci. The film opens on Tucci losing his job as head of the risk assessment department of a major investment bank (in a scene reminiscent of Up in the Air). Tucci is brilliant here, finding just the right balance between anger, devastation and bewilderment as he is told the news and escorted from his office and out of the building. On his way out he hands a USB drive to one of his loyal former charges, played by Quinto (also a producer on the project), who studies the files and finds out what the rest of the world won't know for 24 hours: that Wall Street is on the verge of bankruptcy. Peter alerts his boss (Bettany), who in turn alerts his boss (Spacey), who then alerts the ruthless overlords above him, before they eventually send for the big boss himself (Irons). This chain of events takes up the majority of the film as we see a number of sweary meetings during which people constantly ask the analysts to "simplify" what they are saying. Consequently everything is discussed either in vague and non-specific terms (e.g. "look at that on the monitor." "What am I looking at?" "That." "Oh god that's bad." "That's really bad.") or in the form of bombast metaphor and sermonising. Professional financiers talk about money in Margin Call the way scientists talk about science in Roland Emmerich movies. In fact, as if in homage to the great disaster movies, Quinto is cast as the lone expert - here a genuine "rocket scientist" (time honoured shorthand for "smart") - and the only man in the world who knows what's going on. There is even a scene in which he slowly removes his iPod headphones as he first sees the fateful equations on his computer, with a face that looks as though he is glimpsing a dinosaur for the first time in Jurassic Park or witnessing a UFO landing. These high-octane disaster movie elements, coupled with the swaggering dick-waving of Bettany's character, could make for an interesting, if trashy, movie if the film didn't think so much of itself. Instead we witness a disaster of a movie in which Spacey is forced to spout horrific po-faced clich├ęs. For example, when a colleague exclaims that it all feels like dream, Spacey retorts predictably that it's more that "we've just woken up." It's a film where almost every character gets to have a monologue, whilst Demi Moore is bereft of anything to do whatsoever - the most pointless supporting role in recent memory. You might have expected to read a comparison to Oliver Stone's Wall Street films here, but Margin Call does not warrant being placed in that company (something I say despite not liking Stone's movies at all). It is cheap looking, heavy-handed and tonally inconsistent, with very few redeeming qualities - the first being Tucci's brief but memorable turn and the second being a sequence in which we hear Bettany's character on the phone selling worthless stock on the morning of the crisis. I am not altogether unsympathetic with Margin Call's aim of showing the stockbrokers in a more human light, accepting that they are people who acted in line with the tenants of capitalism. The system itself failed and, in that sense, I suppose the oft-demonised people of Wall Street were and are victims of the crisis - with many losing their jobs as well as vast fortunes. It shouldn't be that hard a sell, if handled right. But unfortunately for Spacey et al, this film about people who end up selling everything (morally and literally) can't sell anything to an audience and its place "in competition" here in Berlin doesn't inspire confidence in this year's programme. Margin Call is heading for a U.S. release on October 11th, no word of a European release yet.
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A regular film and video games contributor for What Culture, Robert also writes reviews and features for The Daily Telegraph, and The Big Picture Magazine as well as his own Beames on Film blog. He also has essays and reviews in a number of upcoming books by Intellect.