Friday, October 21, 2011

Chicago Film Festival Closing Ceremony Surprise! It's---"Margin Call"

The second-to-last night of the Chicago Film Festival traditionally offers a Surprise Film.  No one knows beforehand what the film will be. Speculation and excitement run rampant.  All you need to do to get in is wear a Festival T-shirt or sweatshirt.

Wednesday night was cold and damp, with fierce winds blowing the rain hard against your face and soaking your topcoat to an embarrassing degree.  An umbrella was no good against the gusts of 60mph or more.

That didn't keep true fans away.  When I arrived an hour before showtime, there was a contingent of almost 100 strong already, sitting in a snaky line in the lobby.  It felt like my days as a college residence hall director. 

As the time approached, everyone was abuzz with guesses as to what we would see.  "J.Edgar"?  "Rum Diary"?  "The Muppet Movie"?  The new Almodovar?    After a festival filled with riches from all over the world, with edgy and wonderful cinema to revel in, what would be the frosting on the cake?

We took our seats and got rowdy for group photos (ours should be posted on the Fest web site soon). The lights went down.  We held our breath....

Fade in to a helicopter shot of New York City...  The projectionist had no time to even frame the picture properly: the credits, which appeared on the bottom of the frame, were cut off!  That problem would plague the first 15 minutes of the movie.  Fortunately, the main title appeared dead center...and there was a strange, uncertain silence from the cineastes in my midst.  The film? "Margin Call". 

A relatively unfamiliar Hollywood product...  We were intrigued....Instead of excited applause, we all settled back to quietly check it out.....

*      *      *      *      *      *  

"Margin Call", the feature-film debut of writer-director J.C. Chandor, feels like it was made from a rough-draft of a screenplay that could have used a rewrite. 

Reportedly shot in just over two weeks on a tight budget, the film deserves some kudos for attempting to tell a human story of investment bankers who were seduced by easy money and created a global financial meltdown.  After the first fifteen minutes, I thought "Margin Call" was going to become some sort of "Die Hard" involving an idealistic corporate intern fighting the corruption of the evil rich.  Fortunately, the film moved in a quieter direction, and seemed to be making a sincere attempt to entertain and be topical.

The problem, for me, is that this movie is nothing more than two hours of guys (and Demi Moore) in suits, talking, about things that are both impenetrable (they need, literally, a rocket scientist to explain the trader train-wreck about to occur); and so familiar that we become impatient for some new twist, some new light that never comes. 

 Thus "Margin Call" is oddly contradictory.  It examines an issue that, today, has people taking to the streets in anger; and yet feels completely cut off from the real-life implications of its subject matter.  (Viewers will have been more stirred to angry action, and deeper understanding, from "Capitalism: A Love Story" or "Inside Job").  Instead, "Margin Call" seeks to generate some weird sympathy for these individuals who somehow had no idea what was about to happen, and asks us to accept them as victims.  Characters spend a lot of time looking at alarming stuff on myriad computer screens, but we viewers are neither invited to look at, nor to begin to understand, what's on them.

It all goes back to the script.  The film opens with a veteran employee (Stanley Tucci) getting fired, being offered a severance, and losing his office privileges and company cell phone.  He is ordered to clear out immediately. A "Soprano"-sized bodyguard is assigned to stand watch outside of Tucci's office and accompany him to the elevator, to be sure he does not steal any company secrets. And then, in the elevator right in front of this "escort", Tucci hands a flash drive to a young analyst he has mentored (the darkly handsome, newly "out" Zachary Quinto), tells him to have a look, and to be careful.... 

Which is exactly what the beefy bodyguard was assigned to prevent!!....and no comment is made.

At this point, all credibility collapses, and the film never really recovers.  Soon, the ever-loyal Quinto takes a look at his mentor's work, finds the missing piece that Tucci was about to discover before he was sacked, and his rocket-science training allows him to see what no one else was able to see (or having seen, admit to): that the company, like much of the world, was on the brink of financial collapse.  It occurs to a viewer that the massive layoffs, staged at the film's outset, had nothing to do with the company going under, since, at that moment, no one realized anything bad was happening.... So why not re-write Tucci's character as a new retiree, and skip the false intrigue?

"Margin Call" takes place in a 24-hour period, in one office building.  It's like a sedated version of "Glengarry Glen Ross" with today's headlines to give it legitimacy.  This movie, come to think of it, might have more energy if it were performed on a stage.

Lacking any filmic excitement, we are drawn in by a capable and excellent cast, who all perform with conviction, even though some rather lazy dialog often has a variety of characters using the same phrasing,  for no apparent comic or dramatic purpose.  Because of the actors (and Demi Moore), I will admit that I was, at least for two hours, held and entertained.

The aforementioned Quinto doubles here as one of the producers of the film.  He plays a likable character whose role too quickly diminishes into a supporting one (a gesture of modesty, perhaps?)  His cool, determined gaze and luxurious, magic-marker eyebrows make for some intense and satisfying closeups.  He also has, far and away, the best haircut of the entire cast...I have rarely seen so many glamorous stars look so sloppy in a film about high-rolling professionals.

Kevin Spacey, as the head of the division, looked alarmingly different in appearance.  To say his character is deglamorized is an understatement; at first I thought he was Gene Hackman.  Nevertheless, he works small miracles with this part, and should have been given a better-developed back-story. The script cheats Spacey out of what could have been an incredibly moving moment in the film.

Jeremy Irons chews up the scenery as the Big Boss, who helicopters in for the night, to gather enough information to put the final nail in the coffin of his troubled company, all for his enrichment. 

Paul Bettany is almost too treacherous, chewing Nicorette gum and seeming a lot more mysterious than he is. Penn Badgley is a naive innocent, a nerd who wears white socks with his suit, and pulls off a loyal frat-brother puppy-dog demeanor--I liked Badgely a lot. Simon Baker and Demi Moore are fine in bookend roles, as high-level investors who must find a quick way out of a jam, manipulating everyone like expert chess players.  Moore is surprisingly good, especially in her climactic dialogue with Irons.

Perhaps the most unfortunate failing of "Margin Call" is its inability to move an audience.  Spacey's character has, as a framing device, a poignant concern about his dog, who is about to die.  Is this a two-cent way of eliciting sympathy?  As a sucker for all things dog, and as one whose tears flow freely whenever a movie character has to bury a departed pet, I had no emotional reaction to this at all.  It all seemed so wrong, and so manipulative, in a film as steely-cold as "Margin Call".


  1. Where's the pic of you in the shirt, Tom? Surely you can do a little modelling to plug the festival (or is it the plan to drop one in some point in the spring to remind us.)

    It seems like Margin Call was an odd choice for the closing film, neither highly anticipated nor a unheard of gem that could break out. Why do you think the festival organisers chose it?

  2. Ben, that's great! I like to imagine that empty seat is my own, while I have gone up front to snap the picture!! Actually, the picture I used is last year's event, as a placeholder until this year's photo is posted. Maybe I will be in that one.

    You raise a good question about why this film was used in the Festival. Maybe an agreement with the studio for use of another, more prestigious film....or maybe an agreement made with the theater, to run a sneak preview to generate word of mouth ("Margin Call" was released two days later)....Whatever the reason, it was sort of a letdown after the excitement of the previous two weeks.