Margin Call - Penn Badgley, Zachary Quinto and Paul Bettany
Margin Call - Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley), Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) and Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) are Wall Streeters at the top with a long way to fall © Roadside Attractions

Blessed with a release date that coincides with spreading Occupy Wall Street protests and mounting public outrage at the financial industry, Margin Call offers an engrossing look at the collapse of a fictional but convincingly criminal trading firm.

Although seemingly set during the 2008 economic meltdown, the movie does not come with a date stamp, perhaps because director/writer JC Chandor thought its exact era was unimportant. After all, as the utterly amoral head of the unnamed company in the film explains, this kind of thing happens over and over again.

Several employees at the firm have been tapped for termination, including risk-management head Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci). On his way out the door, he asks junior analyst Peter Sullivan (Star Trek‘s Zachary Quinto, possessor of cinema’s most impressively dramatic eyebrows) to look at a project he didn’t have time to finish.

Staying after hours, Quinto discovers (with a priceless expression of wordlessly horrified realization) that projected losses on the company’s mortgage-backed securities are greater than the value of the entire company. And that’s not even the worst part.

Margin Call - Kevin Spacey
Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) doesn’t like the way things are adding up © 2011 Roadside Attractions

One clever aspect of the smart screenplay is the way the bad news figuratively and literally ascends to progressively higher levels of the company over the course of a single night. Quinto’s first call is to fellow analyst Seth Bregman (Gossip Girl‘s Penn Badgley), a recent hire who has gone out drinking with their businesslike but relatively unbastardlike boss Will Emerson (Paul Bettany).

Sufficiently alarmed at what they see on Sullivan’s screen, the three agree their next call should be to Emerson’s boss Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey). He isn’t happy about returning to the office at 11pm, but realizes when he gets there that the matter is above his head.

When company honcho Jared Cohen (Simon Baker) and icy risk management supremo Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore) also blanch at the bad news, there’s only one guy left at the top of the phone tree and the building. The firm’s billionaire owner John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) arrives via helicopter in the wee small hours of the morning.

The film refreshingly avoids screaming matches, physical confrontations and the kind of trashy soap-opera antics that sunk last year’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. Instead, Margin Call is about the everyday banality of corporate evil. Although objections are raised and resentments aired, the interactions are adult and indoor-voice reasonable. There’s more contemptuous seething than contentious shouting.

Margin Call also keeps its economics viewer-friendly, although it’s odd that the title term — which refers to the need for an investor to deposit additional money in an account if holdings bought with borrowed money decrease too far in value — never is defined.

Irons is perfect as the kind of regally self-interested titan who doesn’t care how many people must suffer so long as he remains on top. Spacey is good as the conscience-stricken sales manager, but a subplot about his dying dog is distracting and unnecessary. That’s because the movie is at its best when it stays stuck in the skyscraper where everything is going down, down, down.

[Rating: 4 stars]


James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer.