Friday, October 21, 2011

Long Dark Night on Wall Street: Margin Call

Who understands the recent financial crisis better, brokers on Wall Street or first-time indie filmmakers? If you answered the latter, than this is the film for you. Have no fear, writer-director J.C. Chandor’s father was at Merrill for forty years, so it’s all in the genes. The toast of Sundance and New Directors/New Films earlier in the year, Chandor’s Margin Call (trailer here) opens for real today in New York.

Junior analyst Peter Sullivan’s boss Eric Dale is about to be unceremoniously let go. His cell phone will be terminated and his email locked. As he is escorted out of the building, Dale gives him a flash-drive with the file he had been working on. “Take a look at this, but be careful,” he cautions. When Sullivan pops it in, up launches a spreadsheet predicting the firm is on the brink of imminent collapse.

Sullivan alerts his new boss, Will Emerson, the British expat head of trading, who calls in his boss, Sam Rogers. As the firm’s long dark night of the soul progresses, the dire projections work their way up to CEO John Tuld, but of course nobody can reach Dale, since they cut all ties with such ruthless efficiency.

Presented in only the most simplistic terms, supposedly because the senior management who have lived and breathed the market for three to four decades needed it broken down in that manner, the firm’s crisis apparently involves sub-prime mortgages they packaged together with less risky assets into extremely profitable packages. The problem is they have been caught with too much junk on the books. Naturally, the steely Tuld mandates a draconian solution: liquidate all of it as soon as the market opens. Of course, this will require the traders burn bridges with all their counterparts, but the firm will survive. Yet, this seems somewhat problematic, turning potential paper losses into serious-as-your-life financial losses. At least, the traders stand to make sizable bonuses if they can pull it off. Rogers though, has profound misgivings.

Nobody should go to Margin for an economics lesson—or to any other narrative drama for that matter. However, those looking for a salty-talking men-in-suspenders pressure cooker drama will probably enjoy the style and attitude on display throughout the film. Producer Zachary Quinto is pretty bland as Sullivan the plugger, but the rest of the cast really digs in with relish. Paul Bettany largely commandeers the film, realistically capturing the swagger and animal charisma of Emerson, a proud “one-percenter.” To a surprising extent, Kevin Spacey and Stanley Tucci legitimately humanize Rodgers and Dale respectively, investing them with nuance and complexity. Although Jeremy Iron’s Tuld is basically an off-the-shelf businessman villain, he certainly knows how to chew the scenery with menace.

Yet, Margin indulges in one of the most persistent and pernicious Hollywood stereotypes with Sarah Robertson, a senior manager played by Demi Moore, largely just carrying on from where she left off in Disclosure. Why is it that businesswomen are unfailingly portraying as cravenly CYA-ing backstabbers out to derail all their male colleagues? Screenwriters really need to get out into the real world more.

Chandor has a great ear for dialogue and he perfectly captures the eerie vibe of being in the office during the wee hours. He just needs to get past some dated gender preconceptions. Sometimes silly, but still a promising first feature, Margin opens today (10/21) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.