‘Margin Call’ — small-budget, deep impact movie on economic meltdown

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

Oh, for the good ol’ days of a strong economy. The days when a Hollywood disaster movie was about a meteor or a volcano.

No such luck in “Margin Call,” a small-budget film with an unexpected deep impact.

The year is 2008. The place: a brokerage firm, somewhere on the top floors of one of Manhattan’s shiniest towers of finance, that’s about to be hit by today’s equivalent of a volcano or meteor: an economic meltdown.

We begin with a staff-slashing bloodbath. “Better not to watch,” veteran Paul Bettany tells newbie, Zachary Quinto, as two automatons in expensive heels wander through the office, dispensing their nothing-personal kiss of death.

Putting their hand on one employee’s shoulder, then another, they cull the herd. George Clooney’s corporate assassin in “Up in the Air” looks like Mother Teresa in comparison.

Among the first to go is risk-management specialist, Stanley Tucci (a smart move; letting Tucci set the tone for your movie is always a smart move). Before he gets to the street, his email and company cell phone have been disconnected.

So, like Bilbo handing over that Ring to Frodo, he palms a Zip drive to Quinto. Who plugs it into his computer and sees…the future. Or rather, that his company has no future. As of about two weeks ago.

So begins a fraught 24 hours, set several dozen floors above, in the soft lights and plush carpets of the firm’s executive suites. Among those fighting for a seat in the corporate equivalent of lifeboat:

–Kevin Spacey (in his best work in years) as a middle-management type who proves more complicated than we first think (He’s introduced giving a pep talk to his shaken employees, assuring them that 80 percent of their colleagues, having just had their careers knifed in the back, is good news).

–Demi Moore as a crisply competent corporate lawyer whose power-equivalent is reptilian president, Simon Baker, a smoothie in an expensive suite.

–Jeremy Irons as the Boss of Bosses, who helicopters in from Somewhere Gorgeous and sets his top dogs tearing at each other. Quinto is swept up in the frenzy, too, not because of his position, but that he’s the only one who understands, in concrete terms, what’s going on. “Explain it to me,” drawls Irons (in full “Reversal of Fortune” mode) superciliously. “As if you were talking to a very young child or a Golden Retriever.”

Though it lacks the crackling theatricality David Mamet brought to his scripts when he was at the very top of the game, “Margin Call” nonetheless calls to mind some of the power-playing in “Glengarry Glen Ross.” We don’t need to understand the particulars of the crisis any more than Irons does. The movie is about gamesmanship and ruthlessness and what it takes to find room at the top. And stay there.

Impeccably acted by a Triple-A-rated cast, “Margin Call” can come off as talky and a bit claustrophobic. Reportedly, it was shot in about three days and you get the sense that everyone is a little rushed. But then, so are their characters.

And I love the details writer/director J.C. Chandor tosses in. The late-night cleaning lady who may as well not exist, standing between Moore and Baker as they snipe at each other over her head. Or the noxiously cheerful benefits book handed to each of the fired employees, its cover emblazoned with a dreamy sailboat and the logo, “Looking Ahead.”

Or Bettany’s blithe explanation of how he manages to spend $2 million (pre-bonus) a year: mortgage, clothes, wife, kids, an obscenely costly sports car.

And that last unaccounted $76,000? Restaurants, bars and hookers. “Mostly hookers,” he concludes helpfully.

I don’t want to, well, oversell “Margin Call,” but it’s a fascinating faux-insider look at what many of us now think of as an inside job. Here’s how the other half — or is that the other 1 per cent? — live. Or, at least, survive.

And the movie’s pure genius is, it asks us to care about them.

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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