Writer/director J.C. Chandor's directorial debut 'Margin Call' takes place at a financial firm in midtown Manhattan, far above the normal people whose money (and lives) the analysts and brokers affect with their every decision. Whether or not this firm is the first domino to fall in what would become the financial meltdown of 2008 is unclear, but the scent of change -- or is it blood? -- is in the air, as the movie opens with a series of ruthless layoffs.
As senior risk analyst Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) is escorted out of the building, his years at the firm reduced to a box of mementos, he thrusts a thumb drive at junior analyst Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) and urges him to look at the data on there. There's something there, a problem that he's been working on, and it's bad news. He'd tried to warn others, but no one would listen, so it's probably no coincidence that it's now curtains for Eric and his career. What Peter finds later that night, after his coworkers and bosses leave to celebrate not being canned, is devastating data that indicates the coming collapse -- a discovery that sends his higher-ups into an all-night frenzy of meetings. What they decide could save their hides but send the stock market into a free fall, and each exec has their own angle on the matter.
'Margin Call' has a rather impressive ensemble cast, especially for a first-timer, but most of these big names put in rather bloodless performances. Kevin Spacey is the strongest in the ensemble as an executive plagued by his conscience, as well as more mundane worries like a dying dog, but even these small attempts to humanize him seem sort of cheap; Spacey's talent buoys the writing, but not enough to carry the entire movie. Grand, sweeping shots of New York City throughout the night and early morning emphasize the scale of the impending disaster and how far removed from it these people in their offices and hired cars really are. Unfortunately, it seems that the actors themselves are equally removed; it's like they're acting from behind the ultra-thick safety glass that protects their cubicles and corner views from the elements.
The script has been compared to Mamet, and while there's certainly enough quick chatter to make that leap, it doesn't have the same snap and patter. Chandor uses a neat expository trick to help out those of us who don't get the deep cut financial jargon; when Peter has to explain the information that helped him deduce what Eric was working on to a higher-up, they'll occasionally ask him to speak in plain English. Unfortunately, that doesn't help the general lay of the land, which is littered with confusing or unclear allegiances and priorities that we're somehow supposed to suss out on our own. We know this is important business; otherwise, why would all these nicely dressed rich people be up in the middle of the night in boardrooms? Yet somehow the acting and writing are missing any sense of urgency; instead, it's just as if the execs showed up at the wrong time for a meeting.
One odd subplot is the seeming disappearance of Eric Dale after he's laid off. Naturally, the company turns off his cell phone and disconnects him from email immediately (why they'd let him out of the door with a thumb drive full of information isn't addressed). When the company men want to ask him more questions and/or tie up loose ends, they find that he hasn't gone home and no one has any way to reach him. It seems ominous at first but is eventually a letdown, as if it's a direction the movie was thinking about going in but decided against.
'Margin Call' has an interesting premise, which is to take a close look at how and why ordinary humans could have allowed an extraordinarily devastating financial event to take place right under their noses. What could have been a dynamic narrative instead ends up as baffling and quite often as boring as an Economy 101 textbook.
'Margin Call' is currently playing as part of the New Directors New Films program at MoMA in New York City.