AEOS Review: Margin Call

The Oscar-nominated script for Margin Call is nothing short of deserving for the honor of being nominated in the Best Original Script category.

Rookie director J. C. Chandor, who also wrote the detailed screenplay, somehow manages to gather a high-talent cast to tell the story of Margin Call, Kevin Spacey heading them.

Now I’ll be the first to tell you that when it comes to the financial jargon, I’m as lost as they come. After viewing Margin Call, however, I realized that the heart of the film doesn’t lie in the language in which the business players speak, deal, and trade, but in how each employee on the chain deals with the current card dealt, a card in which Margin Call‘s case is ugly.

You already knows there’s a problem from the get-go when an all-too-familiar cast that might has well been from Up in the Air (2010) appears through the elevator doors bearing empty boxes, tapping employees shoulders and directing them to another room for a chat. Paul Bettany, who seems to thrive in whatever role he’s cast, warns younger employees Peter (Zachary Quinto) and Seth (Penn Badgely) not to watch the firing that is about to take place.

Eric Dale, played by the ever versatile Stanley Tucci, has just been let go from the company, and tries as he must to let others know there is a certain project he’s in the middle of that must be looked at, is ignored until Peter attempts a “thank you” speech before the elevator doors close on Dale.

The key turning point happens immediately after, when Dale hands Peter the flashdrive with the unfinished project and gives the warning, “Be careful,” as the elevator doors close perfectly in sync with Peter’s mixed look of confusion and curiosity.

Thus, a plot is born as Peter discovers the ending to the unfinished project, and makes a phone call that turns into one meeting after another until the CEO (Jeremy Irons) is present at an 2 a.m. executives meeting. Only one resolution seems probable, although Sam (Kevin Spacey) sees that one option as more dooming than necessary. There’s give and take as characters discuss, reflect, and react the remainder of the film.

There’s a lot of takeaway from Margin Call, and perhaps that’s why the screenplay resonated so well with Academy voters to nominate it. One theme lightly hammered in by Irons’s character is that of the physicality of the situation. In trading, they’re dealing with numbers, not tangible money. Yet when he regards money’s role, he calls it pictures on paper. There’s a whole lot of green passed around throughout the film, be it to trade or act as severance to “tie up the loose ends.” And then the other side to consider is that of the problem. As viewers, we don’t physically see the problem, but we hear about it, we understand it, and yet all we see is the actors viewing the problem on a computer screen, and then the domino effect as the problem reaches higher on the chain of command.

Margin Call‘s other high point comes from the story’s themes subtlety delivered through well-casted characters. Simon Baker is pitch perfect in his role, utilizing smarts, a pin-stripe suit, and a bit of professional slimyness similar to his role in The Devil Wears Prada (2006). Spacey, be it playing the hilarious and altogether psychotic boss in Horrible Bosses (2011), or playing the everyman deemed “soft” for not wanting to pull the plug in Margin Call, balances quite well the different emotions his character Sam is forced to meet with throughout the film. Jeremy Irons suited the role of the calculating, single-minded, rich CEO, while Penn Badgely bore the youthful presence on screen, who didn’t think much past how much money he or anyone else was making.

The majority of the film takes place in an upper floor of a New York City skyscraper. There are multiple shots of the city brightly lit at night, almost giving the city and the building a minor role in the film. My favorite scene is right near the end. The news has just been delivered: while most employees will be dumped, at least financial hope remains for those who successfully sell 93% of their holdings. The office is abuzz, and Paul Bettany’s voice stands out while the scenes of phone calls being made, the inside of the office, the color and life of the city serve as background. He’s fully composed, checking sellers off his list, convincing buyers to accept his offers.

One complaint I do hold is the B story regarding Sam’s dog. The analogy was present and meant to evoke a thoughtful response, but I felt like it wasn’t paid enough attention for us to draw more of a conclusion than that of Chandor attempting to be metaphorical, especially when the sound of digging and breathing lingered into the credits.

Margin Call reminded me much of last year’s The Company Men in watching suits deal in the business world whether losing their jobs or acting out whatever action necessary to grasp tightly onto them. While the lingo of Margin Call similarly reflected that of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010), the heart of it touched on the idea that minor details that slip through the cracks are, in time, not so minor. Even closer did the film reflect that not money, but the ruthlessness needed to hold onto money, is the god of the market and its workers.

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15 thoughts on “AEOS Review: Margin Call

  1. Sounds really interesting. So important to get a good cast when you’ve got a film about suits, money and trading. Normally I would avoid this like the plague but your review has convinced me to take a chance on it. Probably wait for the DVD though.

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    • Thanks, Pete! I had read other reviews on it and kept thinking that it would be over my head. And in some ways, it was, but overall, I found it really enjoyable. My introduction to the film was seeing it pop up on the Oscars nominees list for Best Original Script.

      Oh, it’s already on DVD! You’ll have to let me know what you think of it when you see it, Pete.

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  2. I’ve been a bit reluctant to see this movie because Hollywood loves to simplify complex issues and I despise those faux-revisionist, self-righteous takes at recent events. I heard about a scene where the employees were shocked to hear about how much one of the executive was making and that put me off, because this wouldn’t happen in real life. They know exactly how much the guys at the top are making and they have their hands in the cookie jar as well.

    I will definitely give it a watch but certainly, that’s something I will keep in mind.

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    • That’s interesting. I can definitely see where you’re coming from, but one thing I can say is that Chandor’s a rookie behind the camera, and after watching the special features, you learn that he grew up in and near Wall Street, so his perspective is a little different, even if it’s supposedly based on recent events (which I’ve heard/read much of).

      Another thing to regarding that – it was all Penn Badgely’s character who was obsessed with how much everyone was making. He had a very youthful perspective on it. The other characters didn’t seem to quite care, as if there was this unspoken knowledge of what everyone else made without a care to constantly vocalize like Badgely’s character did.

      I would say to definitely watch it. I’d be interested to hear more about what you think of it, Castor!

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  3. This film really flew in under the radar. There’s not been much press about it, apart from Paul Bettany doing an interview on the radio station I listen to over here. I’ll definitely give it a watch, but maybe when it hits the small screen.

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    • I’m not sure if it’s been released on DVD over by you yet, but I actually watched it on DVD, not the theater.

      Yeah, it really did fly under the radar, but given that it was a Sundance film, it’s not entirely a surprise.

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  4. Great review Kris, you’re right, money is neutral, it’s the LOVE of money that can be man’s downfall. That line that Spacey said towards the end about needing the money is delivered in such pathos… it’s like we’ve all done it at one point in our lives you know, but in this case, these people had to do it at such a cost to society. I wasn’t really impressed w/ Badgely’s performance but his character is quite fascinating in his obsession w/ how much others make, obviously that’s how he measure others’ – and his own – self worth.

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    • Thanks, Ruth! Exactly. It’s such a well-placed line, filled with irony. I would agree with you on Badgely – it’s more the character he played. I also think he was well cast: he has that “playboy,” youthful look to him that seems to make him fit that careless, naive character well. His character is definitely interesting to dissect. Thanks for your thoughts!

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  5. (Mental note – don’t try to leave blog comments during the workday)

    I’m still reflecting on little details from MARGIN CALL almost a week later…like the way the whole company is teetering on the edge, and the one junior analyst keeps coming back to openly wondering about how much everybody makes. Sorta sums up the white collar attitude, doesn’t it?

    I think the part that really twisted the knife for me was the discussion of bonuses amongst the traders. As in “Help us do what we know we shouldn’t be doing, and we’ll cushion your landing with a lot of dough. A lot of people are gonna get royally screwed here – including you – but it’ll be OK because you’ll walk out of here with a payday.”

    Cripes.

    Great review!

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