“Speak to me as you might to a young child or a golden retriever,” pleads Jeremy Irons’ oily investment firm head in Margin Call. The data that fuels the drama of this, the latest all-star drama to dwell on the business world post-Economic Catastrofuck, is designed to sail right over the audience’s head, if not cause eyes to glaze over. Moreover, it’s not exciting stuff, at least not when depicted authentically. Or at least it is according to debuting writer/director J.C. Chander, whose father worked in the trade currently being picketed by crusty youths the nation over. When shit meets fan, Chander has said, bankers get quiet, not loud. And the one striking thing about Margin Call, which depicts one firm mid-sink, is how quiet it is, how calm. Calm with the sickening air of tension, but calm regardless.
Zachary Quinto, who also produces, plays a young broker who deduces that his place of employment is in calamity at around 10:30 p.m. on a weeknight. Trouble is, the risk manager who would know how to solve it (Stanley Tucci) was one of the many fired in the film’s opening minutes, and is nowhere to be found. The rest of the film depicts the salvage job that’s held during the wee hours, enacted by types: Paul Bettany is the Nicorette-chewing hot shot, Simon Baker the casually no-nonsense exec and Kevin Spacey the boss we know is decent because his dog is dying.
Margin Call isn’t above cliches and short cuts (see the last sentence), but it’s also resolute about soberly observing as those who have fucked the world try to navigate out of being fucked themselves. Other than its serene negotiation scenes, Margin Call is at its brightest, if not best, when finding pockets of empathy, if not sympathy, in its villains. The best moment has Bettany—clearly happy to not be fighting crappy CGI monsters in religious blockbusters—illustrate how surprisingly easy it is to blow through a $2 million a year salary. Margin Call isn’t much more than a peek behind already exposed doors, but its cool cynicism is preferable to The Company Men and Up in the Air.