Margin Call: Toxic Assets

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

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.

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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


Margin Call: Toxic Assets