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by Laura Leon on November 3, 2011

Margin Call
Directed by J.C. Chandor

Killer instinct: Paul Bettany in MARGIN CALL

A movie about a worldwide investment firm imploding from engaging for years in what turns out not to have been a wise course of fiscal prudence might seem like giving crack to an addict, especially if the addict in question is camping out on Zuccotti or Academy Parks, protesting Wall Street and hoping to stick it to the man presumably responsible for his/her ability to have all that time to, well, protest. (I am not suggesting that protestors are addicts; it seemed better than the giving-candy-to-a-baby analogy.)

Margin Call, written and directed by J.C. Chandor, is just such a movie, though, and it succeeds in imbuing its now sadly familiar story of financial breakdowns with a little background on just why subprime mortgages seemed so right for so long. At the same time, the film humanizes the hardworking people whose careers and reputations were shattered in the process. And for those who still protest that the only good trader is a dead one, it throws in a supreme head honcho, played by Jeremy Irons, who is just so evil he’s a hoot to watch, as he explains a nihilistic historic view of world markets.

Margin Call focuses on a tense 24 hours headed straight from purgatory to the bowels of hell, beginning smack with the gong of the morning bell on the trading room floor to the ominous onslaught of Federal auditors descending upon the unnamed company. The firm is in trouble, and starting today, will bleed employees like a victim in a Halloween sequel. One of the first to go, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), implores the bureaucratic executioners to give him just a bit more time to finish a problem he’s been working on that clearly is going to balloon into something Meaningful. His underling, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), dutifully attempts to figure out the question at issue, and makes the sickening discovery involving mortgage-backed securities, which translates into something of the eloquence of “We’re the Titanic, and we’ve already struck the iceberg.”

Calling in their superiors, Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) and Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), the co-workers realize that they have to bring in the even bigger guns, including Jared Cohen (Simon Baker), who coolness under pressure shows even as he shaves in the men’s room. Finally, CEO John Tuld (Irons) arrives. Tuld is like that kid everybody knew in school, the one who has to see just high up in the tree he can go, or what really happens when you jump off a dock. He believes wholeheartedly in the market, and can adapt to its changes, confident in his ability to figure out how to make money.

While most of the action takes place within the sleek environs of the firm, the skyscrapers and cityscapes of New York outside the high-rise windows are life forces onto themselves, breathing life, inspiring dreams, sucking energy. Interestingly, most of the action within the office is fast and furious; the snail’s pace of Peter’s cab ride through the streets in search of Eric is humorous in comparison. The acting is crisp and the dialogue is juicy. Spacey, in a 180-degree turnaround from his Horrible Boss this summer, is empathetic, and while my fellow theatergoers scoffed when Tuld tells Sam that he should be proud, he’s done good work for 30-plus years, I believed that this character was a valuable employee. And I appreciated Chandor’s audacity to include that line, and not go out of the way to play into the lower-hanging fruit of the anti-Wall Street mentality.

Bettany, in a strong performance, has the movie’s best moment when he essentially explains to a young coworker, devastated that he’s losing his job, how people go on and on about the inequality of incomes, but how you don’t see them asking for pay cuts in the interests of fairness or solidarity with those less fortunate, lucky, or talented. There may not be a lot of physical action in Margin Call, but there’s the scorching sense of minds working feverishly to defuse a ticking bomb of a different, but perhaps more far-reaching, nature.