By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
At least the latest movie about the financial meltdown doesn't make the same mistake as the last one. It also doesn't prove that a fictional film can explain the downturn's causes and effects better than a documentary.
Margin Call focuses on an anonymous Wall Street investment firm on the eve of self-destruction, when risk evaluators realize the holdings they've encouraged clients to buy are worthless. They have two choices: inform the clients, which is the ethical thing to do, or take their money and run, which is what generally happened. There's no happy ending, only the sound — literally — of someone digging a hole, and what goes in isn't coming out.
Writer-director J.C. Chandor depicts well-tailored rats scurrying for cover, an improvement over The Company Men, which tried making us feel sorry for fallen money-grabbers like Ben Affleck's character because he lost his country club membership. Sympathy for the devils? No way.
But Margin Call never clearly dissects the meltdown, how it might have been avoided, or what to do from here. For that you need to see Charles Ferguson's Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job. Chandor believes he's making that kind of movie, peppering the script with insider jargon rattled off by a starry cast. You need to be a CNBC junkie to follow the money. I nodded in agreement when Jeremy Irons' Trumpian mogul ordered someone to "speak to me in plain English."
There are early hints of a thriller, while the firm is slashing its work force. One casualty is Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), who hands a USB thumb drive to his surviving assistant Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), warning him to be careful. It turns out that the only danger he faces is radiation from a computer screen. Peter checks Eric's numbers after hours and immediately realizes the firms' assets are worthless.
He takes the information up the chain of command, first to Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), who's more concerned about his dying dog than laid-off employees or clients losing their nest eggs. For a minute Margin Call seems poised for satire, but Chandor is serious about making Sam "real." Yet it comes off falsely all the way to the end.
Other suits are brought in for an all-night discussion of what to do next. The general consensus is to dump the worthless assets into investors' laps before bad news leaks. Lots of David Mamet-style verbal sparring, as conscience duels with greed, and it's never a fair fight. The actors chew into Chandor's dense, profane dialogue and telling, off-hand remarks with Gordon Gekko gusto.
Margin Call carries itself like an important movie, which it isn't. Neither is it pulpish enough to be considered entertaining, which it could be. Where's Oliver Stone when you need him?
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.