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All words: Toni Tileva

Margin Call is the fictional counterpart to Inside Job, the scathing documentary about Wall Street hubris. It tells a chillingly authentic story as it follows the life of an investment firm during the 2008 meltdown.  The tension is psychological and no less thrilling, and unlike Wall Street or Boiler Room, it does away with the macho-centric “old boy network” of the financial world.  With a star cast including Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci, Demi Moore, and Jeremy Irons, first time writer/director J.C. Chandor attempts to humanize two-dimensional caricatures in the public consciousness: Wall Street “fat cats” and their whiz kid underlings.  It’s a film that raises more questions than it answers, as it should. This is a trenchant commentary on the nebulousness of accountability and the morality of money.

Zachary Quinto plays a young risk management wonk (with a Ph.D. in rocket science, no less), who “discovers” that the firm is leveraged beyond its limits. At the current market volatility levels, it is looking to incur losses greater than its value.  The big guns are called in, including the CEO (played with appropriate Euro-trash bluster by Jeremy Irons), who helicopters in to weigh in on how to offload the toxic assets.  Kevin Spacey turns in a spectacular performance as a world-weary trading floor boss who has the dirty job of selling worthless instruments.  His character in particular is extremely nuanced — he resists management’s “sell something worth nothing” plan not from a moral high ground, but from the perspective of a veteran salesman.

At one point, Spacey’s character intones, “We are not in the business of selling. We are in the business of buying and selling. And we only sell stuff that we know people will come back for.  No one will trust us again.”  In his amoral, strange, yet stoically samurai-esque way, he has loyalty to the firm, not its CEOs and not the market.  He is also not oblivious to the cut-throat nature of their business; after a particularly brutal lay-off of 80% of his traders, he advises the remaining traders that their co-workers are “not to be thought of again.”  A telling exchange with Quinto’s character on whether selling the assets is the right thing encapsulates the message of the whole film.

Margin Call deserves credit for shining a light on a broad scope of Wall Street milieu.  When Demi Moore’s character gets fired, for example, Chandor shrewdly hints at the chauvinistic nature of the business.  The dialogue among the junior staff about their thankless role and about the “game” of their business highlights its nihilistic ethos.  Later, the CEO’s adds cheeky commentary on the current purpose of over-compensated Wall Street executives.  The hookers-and-blow excess, naturally, adds a realistic touch.

Considering that we are in the midst of the economic quagmire to which Margin Call alludes, the film still manages to avoid the “too soon” category. No Ph.D. in Economics required, it aptly presents the situation for what it is, offering few easy answers and it steering clear of the blatantly vapid money-worship that define older financial thrillers.  The characters are fallible and complex: some are Patrick Bateman-esque, while others like Kevin Spacey’s character, are downright likable. Margin Call explores those who are dehumanized by our current political discourse, even though their humanization and redemption are not so easy to stomach.

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