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Margin Call movie poster

Margin Call Movie Review

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The world is in an ecomonic rut. Maybe you noticed? Though the pieces were set long before Lehman Brothers collapsed in September 2008, the firm's bankruptcy is commonly considered the action that set the dominoes in motion. In Margin Call, writer/director J.C. Chandor explores one day in a large, unnamed financial organization <ahem, cough, Lehman Brothers> as its employees and executives realize that it's about to take a nosedive.

Oh, shit. That's the response analyst Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) has when he looks at an algorithm his just-fired boss (Stanley Tucci) passed his way. He quickly convinces his new boss (Paul Bettany) to escalate his findings up the chain of command, to longtime manager Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) and CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons). It becomes immediately clear that drastic measures will  have to be taken to save the firm, but will they work, and, more importantly, what will be the macro repurcussions?

Very much an ensemble film, Margin Call is trying to be this year's Glengarry Glen Ross, a business movie made for business people, with passive aggressive speeches about moralities and obligations and quarreling executives arguing about legacies and ethics.

It never comes close to the same level of intensity or mastery of that classic (which also starred Kevin Spacey), but it presents an interesting look at the machinations that may have occured in the final days of Lehman Brothers' collapse.

Margin Call is a good movie but not a great one, with strong performances and some grind-to-the-bone scenes, but a story that only has one inevitable conclusion and characters that are forced to talk in generalities. The fact that the company goes unnamed and that the implications of the executives' decisions are always obscure and only alluded to gets obnoxious after a while. If everyone knows what you're talking about, just say it.

Still, Margin Call is one of Kevin Spacey's best movies in years; Spacey also delivers the most emotional and complex performance in the film. He's the only character who seems to really give a damn and struggles with the implications of the decision he must make. Quinto does a fine job, too, but his character is merely a messenger of bad news, nothing more.

On the flip side, Jeremy Irons's scene-chewing performance edges on hammy, his character as one-sided as they come. As the CEO, his character should have faced the most difficult decision, and yet it's clear that his mind is made up before he ever appears on screen. There's no conflict, no complexity to his character.

Margin Call is a well-made little movie, but is limited by its premise and a screenplay that, while effective, explores the broad issues but fails to tackle the complex underlying issues in a direct, explosive way. It's worth seeing, but will be forgotten in a few months' time.

Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.

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