Margin Call Review

Ensemble adaptations and interpretations of great American crises seem rather humdrum at this stage. The Big Short, The Wolf of Wall Street and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps are just the tip of this slightly larger-than-expected iceberg. Margin Call does not wish to tread on any toes, despite releasing some years before two of those three aforementioned projects. With a gap in the market, it is rather ironic that a film where characters must take risks has a director who takes very few himself. J.C. Chandor must have been a tad starstruck, brushing shoulders with the big shots of this generation. Who can blame him? It is not often directors get a dream cast. But here, it turns into something of a disaster for Chandor.  

With Stanley Tucci, quality is always in close grasp. He does not grasp the nettle here, though. Who would grasp a nettle? It’d hurt. Tucci is in no rush to hurt himself here, and his performance as Eric Dale is more to open up the downfall of so many, rather than of just one person. Should we feel bad for one cog in the massive machine that let down millions? Probably not, no. Margin Call has the grand, insurmountable issue of trying to rally the troops and spin a narrative of good people working a tough job. With the likes of Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons and Kevin Spacey, that insistence is rather difficult. Characters that are stressed up to their eyeballs because they are sitting on “something big” that is surely about to burst. Chandor never reveals what it is, not until it is too late. His characters gather around for an explosion bound to go off, but their insistence that it never will is more annoying than astonishing. 

Many of the issues within Margin Call come from characters that are the same shades of awful. Bettany and Zachary Quinto are defined with differences in appearance only. They are still the same bootlickers who provide services to those that will push them for promotion. That is the rat race so typically dissected by Chandor here. “Be careful,” is the warning Dale gives Peter Sullivan (Quinto) upon his exit from the company. It is the writing here that feels so dissatisfied. Chandor’s writing speaks only in cliché. Hard knocks for the stressed characters who look out over high rise buildings. It paints a picture, but not a pretty one. What pretty scene could be possible here? The issue is more in the lack of stylistic differences to other films from generations past. Wall Street feels no different to this, and that did more with its cast of impressive faces in a generation that had its own financial troubles. 

Sometimes maintaining such a large cast, operating with them and pitting them against one another, is simply too much to handle. For Chandor, the issue is not in who he has cast, but why he has cast them. Anyone can play a businessman. It is an eternal role, like a peasant or a window cleaner, but those that can play them convincingly and with strong execution of deep, real-world attachment, are few and far between. Spacey, Tucci and Irons are all phenomenally talented individuals, but their suit-wearing, boardroom animosity fails to inspire much love or hate for any of the characters. It is the overwhelming surprise and terrifying toll of the stock market crash that burns so brightly at the core of Margin Call, it is a shame it is never really the focus.  

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