Margin Call: Toxic Assets

Margin Call is Less of a Financial Thriller than Preparing Your Taxes

mc 70335 Margin Call: Toxic Assets

Quinto and Badgley in Margin Call

Described in the production notes as an “entangling thriller”, Margin Call is definitely knotted, but it’s about as thrilling as the monthly statement of a failing Individual Retirement Account on the verge of a bank foreclosure. Set in the first 24 hours of the 2008 financial crisis, Margin Call, confusingly written and boringly directed by J. C. Chandor, proves again why Wall Street is so neurotic and disconnected. You need to hire a systems analyst to follow it, and even if you do, you may wish you hadn’t bothered.

After 19 years, veteran market analyst Stanley Tucci is fired by his (unnamed, to protect the guilty) investment firm and unceremoniously handed six months’ salary, his stock options, and only a few hours to clean out his desk and turn in his key to the executive washroom. Coldly dismissed, he is escorted to the door by a guard, denied access to the building, and all of his data files are severed. Except one. He leaves behind a memory stick containing the results of a top-secret project of vital concern to the company, warning a young, ambitious entry-level broker (Zachary Quinto) to check it out. The revelation: the firm’s assets are on meltdown alert, and the flop sweat extends all the way up to corporate think-tank boardroom puppeteers Kevin Spacey and Demi Moore and hard-boiled CEO Jeremy Irons, who orders an all-night vigil to map out survival strategy by cheating their investors into financial ruin to save their own necks. Never have I seen a colder bunch of meat-headed nincompoops, or a bigger cast of wasted penthouse-deck talents to play them.

Rookies Quinto and Penn Badgley walk into walls wondering what to do to help their middle-management boss, Paul Bettany, while on the executive floor, Simon Baker flirts with the mirror modeling three-piece suits, and ulcer-ridden Spacey sits next to his computer with a bottle of Pepto-Bismol, waiting for the next shoe to fall. Corporate downsizers hold a grim reaper’s scythe over them all, while risk management supervisor Moore predicts the projected losses will be greater than the value of the company. Her damage control backfires, but I reserved my sympathy for Mr. Spacey, who plays a nice guy for a change—a former salesman promoted for no discernible reason, although neither he nor CEO Irons can read a Dow report. The fact that the details of Mr. Tucci’s secret project are never explained is a flaw the film never overcomes. What Mr. Irons does understand is that he can save the company by dumping millions in toxic mortgages at rock-bottom stock reductions. “The numbers just don’t add up anymore,” says Mr. Irons, and it’s the truest line in the picture. While I was trying to figure out what was going on myself, my brainy female companion said, “Who cares? There isn’t one single three-dimensional person in the whole script that anybody cares about.”

So true. And so dull. These are people who push numbers around on a computer screen, changing the balance and security of the world’s money, making millions a year to control the future of everyone on the planet, including those who have never heard of the stock exchange. All they talk about is money, and the more they talk the less I comprehend. This, I fear, will be the reaction shared by a lot of people in a potential audience that is so fed up with one market holocaust after another that they’re offering free sleeping bags to growing mobs of Wall Street protestors across the globe. Besides, the movie is already outdated. Who cares about what happened in 2008 when we’re in another free fall already?

As a movie, it’s so tightly framed you gasp from claustrophobia. As a film of cryptic boredom, I cannot believe the actors were able to say their lines without cue cards. (They are a fine ensemble, though, reminiscent of the testosterone level in David Mamet’s Chicago real-estate office in Glengarry Glen Ross.) As a damnation of capitalism and especially the fat cats and starving dogs who buy and sell our lives for profit, you don’t have to be a hedge fund manager to understand everything about Margin Call, but it would help.


running time 120 mins

Written by J.C. Chandor

Directed by J.C. Chandor

Starring Zachary Quinto, Stanley Tucci, Kevin Spacey



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  2. Cinephile says:

    Increasingly I find myself reading Mr. Reed’s reviews with the premonition that he is going to hate precisely what I love the most about too many movies, and that he is going to reveal his distaste in the most intellectually barren manner possible through the most ineffectual of prose styles. Thank you, Mr. Reed, for once again not disappointing my expectations that you would of course have entirely missed the point. “I didn’t get it and was bored” is not a valid critical reading of a film; your not understanding the film has nothing to do with the fact that you are not a hedge fund manager (though we are perhaps all the more fortunate that you should be in charge of no one’s finances except arguably your own). It is an indicator of your lack of effort to engage either with the material or your readership.

    1. SoulHonky says:

      I think it’s very telling that Reed loved Ides of March but hated this. March constantly tries to make a statement about its characters and eventually devolves into melodrama. Margin Call just shows a realistic version of what happened to get us into the mess we’re still stuck in (Reed thinking that we’re in “another free fall” is laughable; does he really think we ever got out of the first one?) and it just shows the characters making their own value decisions and doesn’t judge the characters. Despite the fact that we all know the wrong and right of what happened, the film never really takes sides for or against its characters.

      For all of Reed’s complaints about not knowing what was going on, it was literally spelled out at least twice. His issue wasn’t that they didn’t explain it, it’s that the writer/director didn’t dress it up (and water it down) with melodrama. Ides of March is a more standard work of entertainment. Margin Call is a glimpse inside the collapse of our economy and I found it to be far more gripping, even it was a colder and more muted.

  3. SoulHonky says:

    “The fact that the details of Mr. Tucci’s secret project are never explained is a flaw the film never overcomes.”
    This sentence shows that Reed didn’t get the movie. Tucci’s project was never secret. It was something that he simply hadn’t finished. I can see why Reed thinks it is “secret” because Tucci gives it to Quinto’s character and says, “Be Careful” but he says that because his project pulls the curtain back on what the firm has been doing and it’s not what the higher ups have wanted to hear. Tucci even says as he’s being let go something to the effect of “I never should have told her.” He says Be careful because people always kill the messenger (oh, and all of this happens at the start of the movie so it’s not a spoiler.)

    As for the details, those are most certainly explained in very technical terms. The entire film is based around these details. It’s funny that Reed says that “there’s too much jargon! It’s hard to understand!” and then complains “I need more details!”

    As for the outdated comment, Reed must have never heard the comment that those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it.

    The one thing I will caution people about is that this is not an Aaron Sorkin West Wing take on what went down. It’s more of a slice of life. It’s cold. It’s muted. It’s not the greatest cinematic masterpiece but as an inside look at what happened on Wall Street a few years ago, it’s a movie that I think everyone should see.


  4. Annooonon says:

    This film is so much better, exciting and touching than the critic describes.  It was actually very easy to follow and understand.  Acting, writing and directing are all top notch.  And the ending is devastating in a very real way. 

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  6. Sue says:

    “All they talk about is money”.  Indeed, the movie reflects reality.  The Wall Street people I have met in the real world are, as a matter of fact,  interested in only one subject (money), how they earn it and how they spend it.  The Actors played their parts well.  The 23 year old kid, with the quarter million dollar salary that sits on the toilet seat and cries despairingly at the loss of his humongous salary when he has his whole life in front of him.  The Rocket Scientist that makes more money on Wall Street than engineering.  The seasoned Wall Street employee remembers the Bridge he built when he was working at a different job.  The Salesman (Sam) succeeds in his last big drive to sell useless product to unsuspecting customers.  There is truth in this movie for the past, for now, and for the future.  This movie should be seen by anyone who wants to restrict Wall Street and the Banks.  Or by anyone who has lost their home because of a crazy mortgage scheme.  It is an important film with an important theme

  7. FilmDude says:

    Will someone please fire this gossip columnist masquerading as a film critic already?

  8. Disheartened says:

    Kudos to Reed for continuing his trend towards out-of-nowhere vitriol and inappropriate insults. This is the same person who called Charlie Kaufman a “bottom feeder” out of nowhere in a (horrible) review of Inception. An ironic insult to come from a movie critic? Perhaps. Perhaps 73 years of criticizing creators without offering anything of his own to the world has him a touch bitter. But is that reason enough to forgive racism (check out his Oldboy review) and criminality (check out his 2000 shoplifting arrest)? Probably not. I think retirement, or, better, a retirement home, is in order.

  9. “All they talk about is money, and the more they talk the less I comprehend.”

    This is a film about Money and our confused relationships with it. Tuld, the Master of the Universe in this story, tells us all we need to know to understand what Money means in this film as well as money in the economy: “It’s made up.  Pieces of paper with pictures on it so
    we don’t have to kill each other just to get something to eat.”  He follows up with, “It’s not wrong…you and I can’t control it or stop it or even slow it or even so slightly alter it.  We just react.”

    That’s it.  This film shows us a glimpse of an economy that rewards those who understand it only just well enough to more successfully react to it.  The money managers don’t control Money.  They read it, like weathermen.  And when reacting to the storms that threaten Money, Tuld explains, there are only 3 ways to prevail 1)  Be First 2) Be Smarter or 3) Cheat.  And Tuld is at the top of the food chain, not because he understands financials, charts and formulas, but because his instincts signal when and how to react.

    The power of the film is in showing us that Money is poorly understood up and down the chain, and how everyone involved comes to their own twisted relationship with it.  Even Tuld (who may well have hatched from an egg fully equipped with his predictive “gift”) – even Tuld has no illusions he can control it.  While at the same time there are episodic insights at certain points that actions undertaken in the crisis will negatively impact both the financial system and also real people linked to it via the chain-none making the decisions suffer any illusions that they can stop the tsunami-nor ameliorate its damage by warning friends or loved ones (note: doing so would be illegal in SEC regulated trades).  More that they determine they should preserve their company (or company bonuses) ahead of it.  It shows us that Money masters people, not the other way around, at every level of the chain. Everything is priced…even principle. 

    Money is a poorly understood intangible that has tremendous control over us-all of us.  Money’s like weather-a force of nature that man can both predict and control with somewhat patchy success, but like weather, money does what it’s gonna do and when we manage to change what it’s gonna do, it’s most times an unintended consequence we’re apologizing for (or outright denying) after.  The film dramatizes this and this is better than reducing the reality to a simplistic good guys/bad guys Hollywood script.

    Watch it again.  You missed a well told story.  

  10. PaulinHollywood says:

    This film was spectacular – will win Oscars – – WAKE UP Mr. Reed.  Shame on your nasty comments.

  11. JeffD says:

    Wow, out of all the reviews I have read on this movie (and I have read many), this has the most errors about content by far.  Mr. Reed must really not have liked this movie to have so tuned out as to not paid attention to what was happening on screen.  Mr. Reed may have read the biography on Steve Jobs and created his own “reality distortion field.”  Frankly Mr. Reed, I am disappointed in you.

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  13. Aaron Schroeder says:

    “As a film of cryptic boredom, I cannot believe the actors were able to say their lines without cue cards.”

    Substitute “author” for “film” and you’d have a grammatical, and accurate, sentence.  So close.

    Hard to believe that such a comically dangling modifier could’ve escaped even the most lazy-eyed of editors.  Insofar as your piece shunts readers away from this film for its actors’ failure in the practice of their craft, I suggest you take a piece of your own advice.

  14. Deebin says:

    Rex is so right about this snoozer of a movie.  There is no drama created and the characters lack the slightest bit of development…they might as well be zombies.  All the angles of the dazzling evening Manhattan skyline cannot save this waste of celluloid.  The moviegoer is left to try to understand the financial workings of what is going on as nothing is explained.  And, as I was dulled out of my mind by this crap, I did not care.

  15. Franco says:

    No wonder the numbers don’t add up… The former ingeneer is wrong in his calculations: he saved 15.315 years to the people who used his bridge, not 1.531. I checked it.

  16. Curmudgeon says:

    Nobody seems to notice that the movie is not even about a margin call!! Per Wikipedia:   “When the margin posted in the margin account is below the minimum margin requirement, the broker or exchange issues a margin call. The investors now either have to increase the margin that they have deposited or close out their position. They can do this by selling the securities, options or futures if they are long and by buying them back if they are short. But if they do none of these, then the broker can sell their securities to meet the margin call. If a margin call occurs unexpectedly, it can cause a domino effect of selling which will lead to other margin calls and so forth… Effectively crashing an asset class or group of asset classes.”

    Although the movie was about a fire sale sell-off, it was not about a securities margin call.  It was about a bank that had a very large position owning tranches of mortgages while they were being prepared for packaging as Mortgage-Backed Securities.    When the housing market tanked, they were left holding these seriously depreciating assets and dumped them before others figured out what was going on.    It’s more about the market for securitization of illiquid assets than about a margin call. 

    Also, Quinto did not play a “broker.”  He was an analyst in the Risk Management department.