Review: Margin Call

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The Pitch: The long dark night of the soulless.

The Review: When you become immersed in something, it’s easy to lose perspective sometimes, especially when it comes to money. I can remember, a few years into my real world career, being in discussion about a forecast for the coming year. I don’t recall the exact numbers, but it was along the lines of whether, say, 424 or 426 was the right number to use. Only when I left the meeting did it truly sink in that the unit we were discussing was pounds. In millions. (Thankfully I wasn’t the one making decisions about what to do with that money.) It’s all too easy to become blasé or to ignore the risks of managing such huge sums, so should we have any sympathy for those who lost their jobs on the banking crisis, given that they may have caused it in the first place.

Margin Call attempts to get under the skin of the bankers who caused these issues, or who might have brought about the wider downturn in our global economy. There’s a whole host of players and levels involved: we start with Stanley Tucci, who’s sensed something going wrong, but can’t put his finger on it and is caught up in the cull on his floor. His parting gesture is to get underlings Zachary Quinto and Aasif Mandvi involved, who then have to start escalating up the chain of command, and by the middle of the night everyone from Kevin Spacey to Jeremy Irons is involved. It’s clear that the likes of Demi Moore have known something’s been up for a while, but as the scale of the problem hits home, loyalties shift and everyone tries to have a chair to sit on when the music stops.

If that last paragraph felt somewhat lacking in specific detail of the issues the bankers are facing, then that’s actually a fair description for watching the film itself. Last year’s documentary Inside Job proves that it’s possible to get to the heart of the complex issues and processes that have caused the financial meltdown, but Margin Call takes completely the opposite tack, consisting of lots of men in suits pointing at screens with furrowed brows, but the actual drama of what’s happening is kept at arm’s length. It’s easy for us to see with hindsight the consequences of the drama, but Margin Call relies too much on that hindsight and fails to inject any sense of drama or understanding into the events at the core of the situation, when it could have taken that opportunity without compromising the rest of the narrative.

So Margin Call relies on the strength of its smaller moments, mainly two or three-hander scenes where the various characters gaze at their navels and contemplate how matters will unfold, and those tend to depend entirely on the quality of the actors in that particular scene. The outstanding performer, as so often, is Kevin Spacey, alternating between rallying speeches and a worn down frustration seemingly at will. Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci and Paul Bettany also put in great work, Quinto (who’s also a producer) does what he can with the slightly thankless role he’s given himself, but everyone else involved varies from the eminently forgettable (Simon Baker) to the downright uninteresting (Demi Moore). Margin Call never really even manages to become the sum of these parts; taken as a series of vignettes on the lives of bankers, they’re interesting enough, but the film never really rings true to its potential source. The Margin Call on this one: it’s just about watchable, but unlikely to last longer than a night in your memory.

Why see it at the cinema: Seeing this in a cinema will improve the theatricality of the two handers, and there’s a scene on top of a skyscraper that’s vaguely cinematic.

The Score: 6/10

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