“The ground is shifting below our feet and apparently there’s no other way out,” say characters in the star-studded vehicle “Margin Call,” (playing now in Special Engagements around the country). This film about the financial crisis of 2008 and how it brought Wall Street to its knees, creating a ripple effect still being felt around the world, is instantly reminiscent of “Too Big to Fail,” (which was nominated for 11 prime-time Emmys.)
“Margin Call” showcases Kevin Spacey as the 34-year-veteran of a financial firm who sends traders onto the floor to do business each day. Company head honcho Jeremy Irons needs Spacey to help facilitate a desperate plan to sell off all the firm’s worthless securities, once Stanley Tucci and a young protégé, played by Zachary Quinto (Spock in 2009’s “Star Trek”) discover that the projected losses the formulas predict are greater than the financial worth of the company.
Can the traders go forth and sell all this junk in fire sale fashion without the rest of Wall Street getting wise? Not easily, says Spacey to Irons, and, he adds, “You will never sell anything to any of those buyers ever again.” He adds, “This one is very ugly” and tries to quit, saying, “I think this will destroy this firm. You’re knowingly putting people out of business.” Irons needs Spacey standing by him in apparent agreement with his decision for at least 24 months and Paul Bettany, next man down, does not seem willing to step into Spacey’s shoes and take part in what Is described as “professional suicide.” (“A mercy killing, really,” says Spacey.)
It doesn’t help that, as the film opens, 80% of the firm’s staffers, including Stanley Tucci, are being shown the door. Tucci had reported the discrepancies to his superior (a brittle, dour Demi Moore) earlier, but she and Simon Baker soft-pedaled it to the big brass.
The firm tells its traders that, if they sell 93% of their assets, they get a $1.4 million personal bonus, and if the entire floor hits 93.1% sales, all will get another $1.3 million bonus. As Irons says, “There’s always been fat cats and starving dogs and the percentage will stay exactly the same.” He also notes, “There’s gonna’ be a lot of money made coming out of this mess” saying, “it’s certainly no different today than it’s ever been. ” Of the fat cats, he notes, “We’ve got our fingers on the scales to help them.”
Written and directed by J.C. Chandor, the newspaper ads note that, to win, you need to either (1) Be first (2) Be smarter, or (3) Cheat. When Jeremy Irons’ character says to Spacey’s, “Where is this going to come back to us?” Spacey responds, “Everywhere.”
An all-star cast includes Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany, Simon Baker, Stanley Tucci, Demi Moore, Zachary Qinto, Penn Badgley and Mary McDonnell, plus Ella the chocolate brown Labrador retriever humanizing Spacey as he knowingly helps dump $8 trillion of bad paper around the world. Favorite line (re the explanation of the financial machinations): “Speak as you would to a young child or a golden retriever.”)
A bit talky, but engrossing film fare.