In 'Margin Call,' Corporations Are People
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Alfred Hitchcock, were he still alive today, would likely jump at the chance to make a thriller set in the world of financial markets, if for no other reason than the rich MacGuffin opportunities such a piece would provide. For those not in-the-know about thriller-filmmaking jargon, "MacGuffin" is the term Hitchcock used to describe an elaborate and perhaps even ridiculous plot pretext that, having become a matter of life and death, fuels all the action and plot machinations that follow in its wake. In, for example, Hitchcock's 1959 classic "North by Northwest" the MacGuffin turns out to be a mildly kitschy hollow statuette stuffed with some microfilm -- microfilm of what, the audience never finds out. But it must have been plenty important, or else the bad guys wouldn't have chased Cary Grant through that cornfield with a machine gun-equipped crop-dusting plane, right?
In "Margin Call," the MacGuffin turns out to be trillions of dollars' worth of, as it happens, worthless paper, and the suspense hinges on what the market whizzes who find themselves sitting on that paper are going to do with it. The debut feature from writer-director J.C. Chandor is an ensemble piece that takes place in a 24-hour (or so) period, beginning with a procession of dour suits carrying boxes filing into a firm's office to get some heads rolling, divest the place of some dead weight. The ax doesn't fall on eager newbies Sullivan and Bregman (Zachary Quinto and Penn Badgely), but it does on their boss, veteran Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci). But Eric's been working on a problem that he hands over to Sullivan as he's escorted from the building, and once Sullivan puts its pieces together, the solution spells doom for the firm, unless the top brass, a tense group acted out by the likes of Kevin Spacey, Simon Baker, Demi Moore and, at the tippity-top, Jeremy Irons, can come up with a fix. As Irons' droll but grave old pro puts it, there are three ways of getting ahead in their business: Be faster than the other guy, be smarter than the other guy, or cheat. After proclaiming he doesn't cheat, he counsels fast action. Fast action of a sort that is, well, not exactly not cheating.
A running joke through the film has various ostensible masters of this boardroom universe counseling the more wonky junior firm drones to not bother them with jargon but to explain the situation in "plain English." Truth to tell, speculative financial products are pretty damn daunting to explain, up to and including the action that gives this very film its title. It's rather grimly ironic to reflect on the fact that the world's current economic crisis was brought about at least in part by what amounts to a real-life MacGuffin.
There's a lot of potential grist for a satirical mill here, but that's not what Chandor is going for here. Nor is he going for a profane, Mamet-style dissection/quasi-celebration of the corruption at the heart of what's essentially a sales culture. No, surprisingly enough, he's going for human drama, and often trying to elicit something resembling sympathy for overworked and in some cases soon-to-be-unemployed, well, Wall Streeters. The movie could have alternately been titled "Sympathy for the 1 Percent."
While almost nobody here has clean hands, Chandor doesn't give us any villains per se; even the glibbest and steeliest of the bunch, the piece of yuppie yes-probably-scum played by Baker, gets to display a glimmer of something resembling humanity as zero hour approaches. The atmosphere is evocative and the story reasonably tense, but the movie as a whole is surprisingly dry, as if its integrity somehow depended on its never getting too lurid or going over a certain line of verisimilitude. Still, it's all kept afloat by an excellent cast. Although I must admit that seeing Spacey playing the sort of "last honest man" role that used to be a default mode for the late, great Jack Lemmon (indeed, Spacey played a dastardly foil to just such a Lemmon character in 1992's "Glengarry Glen Ross") made this reviewer feel kind of old.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.