Margin Call is a tough sell. The film—about the 24 hours after a New York investment firm dumps its rapidly devaluing mortgage-backed securities—comes along while too many people across the country continue to deal with the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis. Who needs fiction when the prospect of losing a job, a home or one’s life savings is reality?
Good thing the movie, by writer-director JC Chandor, entertains. Moving with speed and clarity, Margin Call treats its characters with some sympathy while not letting us forget that they're responsible for ruining the economy to the point that it's still stagnant three years later.
On the day the unnamed investment firm axes 80 percent of its staff, one of the fired senior risk analysts, Eric (Stanley Tucci), hands junior analyst Peter (Zachary Quinto) a USB drive with information outlining the firm's overinvestment in toxic assets—those same mortgage-backed securities.
Peter adds up the figures, makes projections and soon realizes his firm is in serious trouble. He shows his work to his co-worker, Seth (Penn Badgley), and his boss, Will (Paul Bettany), who immediately call the suits from the upper floors.
At an emergency 4 am meeting with CEO John (icily played by Jeremy Irons and loosely modeled on Lehman Brothers' Dick Fuld), Peter says, "If those assets decrease by just 25 percent and remain on our books, that loss would be greater than the current market capitalization of this entire company." Then he says the situation is likely worse.
That's when John, at the recommendation of his CFO Jared (Simon Baker) decides the firm will attempt to sell every mortgage-backed security on its books. Sam (Kevin Spacey), the 34-year veteran of the company who devised the strategy John means to employ, says, "You're selling something that you know has no value."
John counters: "We are selling to willing buyers at the current fair market price."
We all know what happens next, but the fact that we continue to watch is a credit to Chandor. The pace is deliberate, but not choppy or panicky.
A movie that exists within a 24-hour span doesn't leave much room for character development, and some of the development that does take place is clunky. Early on, Sam cries because his dog is dying, not because 80 percent of the company has been cut. It's a cheap gag.
By the end of the movie, we learn he's divorced, in financial trouble and just plain pathetic, burying his dog at his former home while his ex-wife (Mary McDonnell, her natural aloofness put to good use) tells him she called the police. Now, Sam's crying makes more sense. If we'd spent our lives hocking crap products and the one thing that cared about us died, we'd cry, too.
Better handled is Quinto's character, who starts as an analyst and quietly becomes Jared's boy by the end. Then there's Bettany, who puts the right amount of smarm, charm and ambivalence into his character, a guy who says he'd feel bad for "normal people" if they didn't want to buy things they couldn't afford.
That's what it boils down to in Margin Call. The people who screwed up the economy are people. They're soulless, but they're people.
Directed by JC Chandor
With Mary McDonnell, Stanley Tucci,
Zachary Quinto, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany,
Penn Badgley, Simon Baker and Kevin Spacey