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MOVIE REVIEW: Margin Call (Wall Street Is People, Too)

Submitted by on October 24, 2011 – 2:53 amNo Comment

Writer-Director J.C. Chandor seems to have set out to make a movie that captured a few of the real human beings behind the economic collapse of 2008. But the resulting Margin Call also wants to announce how bad the system is; as a result, the characters become mouthpieces and something less than human.

Margin Call begins promisingly, with a laser-sharp focus: roughly 24 hours in the lives of a small group of analysts and executives at a fictional Wall Street firm that essentially triggers a market meltdown. We learn little about their lives outside of work except for strategic glimpses that almost invariable show these financial types to be unhappy, misplaced, and sometimes ignorant professionals.

The real problems with the film start just as the audience is expected to begin feeling empathy for these supposedly pitiable traders, who engage in a level of soul searching and doubt that was almost completely absent in the real-life events. Chandor makes some half-hearted attempts to let his characters defend their careers and life choices, but they come off as cruelly nihilistic (Jeremy Irons, as the smooth, cutthroat boss) or evasive (Paul Bettany, as the flashy-but-empty manager).

These are a far cry from the real Wall Street traders who indignantly call their bonuses “market value,” or the CEOs who claim to be doing God’s work.

Kevin Spacey does draw real sympathy as a career company man who begins as a smarmy cheerleader, and ends unable to bear his work but “needing the money.” Even his first-world problem (a dying pet dog) at the start of the film becomes a symbol of vanishing humanity by the end.

But without more empathy and believable conflict, the movie plods along. The acting is a little too understated and the pretty camera work a little too impressionistic to keep things moving.

Margin Call shows us these people, but is afraid to let them loose. If it did, the people at this firm might just say that they love their job, believe that they are productive members of society, and regret nothing. And no one would feel sorry for that.

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