Issue:  Vol. 47 / No. 49 / 7 December 2017
 

Toxic paper boys

Film


Zachary Quinto in J.C. Chandor's Margin Call , now in theaters.
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Margin Call is a disturbing drama about the recent collapse of values in our bedrock financial institutions, a film Occupy Wall St.'s growing army should see without delay. In its opening moments, stock analyst Eric Dale is tossed from his cubicle. Before smashing his now-disabled company phone on a Sixth Ave. sidewalk, Dale (resignation and barely suppressed rage from the reliable Stanley Tucci) whispers to a bright young aide, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), that there's something on his office PC that requires immediate attention. Sullivan, an engineering school prodigy who's slumming at the Firm because the money for recent grads is unbelievable, discovers that the Firm is teetering on the brink of a total meltdown. His report to the Big Boss, John Tuld (genial if totally menacing Jeremy Irons), feels lifted straight out of Paddy Chayefsky.

"Speak as if you were addressing a small child or a golden retriever."

"The potential losses are greater than the total value of the company."

The only clunky part of J.C. Chandor's satire is its pedestrian title. The film quickly cuts to the chase of what's at stake for this Wall St. colossus, possibly a fictionalized Lehman Brothers. It's a carefully constructed dramatic X-ray of the sudden implosion of a piranha-like brokerage outfit. Like other great films detailing how absolute power is exercised in capitalism (Executive Suite, Glengarry Glen Ross, The Apartment ), Margin Call has its own coded language: no one actually names the "toxic" assets the Firm's traders will projectile vomit out into the marketplace, at a velocity that will catch customers and competitors off-guard and prevent the Feds from minimizing damage to innocent bystanders. The movie gets under our skin by allowing voyeuristic access, and by suggesting that we're all somehow complicit in these crimes.

All this is transmitted through harangues, soliloquies, and mea culpas among frightened employees, some of whom are meeting their real boss for the first time. The velvet-throated Tuld arrives stealthily in the middle of the night in a Blackhawk-like company chopper. Tuld coldly informs his minions that not only must they sell ruinously bad paper, causing other firms to default, but some will need to walk the plank and take public responsibility for the Firm's crimes, for which they will be richly rewarded. Unlike Charles Ferguson's excoriating financial-meltdown doc Inside Job, Margin Call subversively humanizes its stock-trading pirates, allowing us to feel their pain and momentarily value it above our own.

The long night of the soul experienced by Sam Rogers – normally a ruthless trading-room floor boss, presently spending $1,000 a day to keep alive a pooch with a malignant tumor – is the film's emotional Waterloo. Tuld, "the golden retriever," desperately needs Rogers' skills at rallying the 20something boy-wonder traders to push the garbage out the door before the smell alerts other dogs on the Street. Here, Kevin Spacey improves on his patented cynical everyman (his turns for Mamet in Glengarry Glen Ross, for Alan Ball in American Beauty), drawing on his hero Jack Lemmon's luster as the last American Mensch to deliver a reformed cynic's last gasp at some tattered integrity.

Margin Call derives real power from the epiphanies of its boy wonders, the youthful, ambitious little shits who do the dirty work of sweet-talking friends and acquaintances around the Street into swallowing toxic paper. A baby-faced trader is seen sobbing in the men's room at the prospect of losing his purchase on the Street's sweet life. Earlier, Seth (shaggy-haired Penn Badgley) confesses his lust for the bucks to two fellow-trader drinking buddies. One of them, an impetuous Brit, mimes the act of jumping off their 50-story perch, a moment of vertigo that Chandor's cameras capture with a unsettling jolt.

"I'm 23. Last year, I made $250,000 just for pushing numbers around, something a glorified crack addict could do." Seth turns to the fiery Brit, Will (Paul Bettany), with a mix of fear and envy. "Is it true you made 2.5 million last year? Where does it go?"

"The Feds take half right off the top; there's 350 for the condo, 75 for restaurants, 50 for clothes, 175 for my folks, 125 for the car, 75 for hookers, dancers, booze. Holy shit, I could write that off as entertainment!"

"That leaves 400,000 unaccounted for."

"That's for a rainy day, and it looks like it's about to pour."

Later, a broken man will bury a dog with more feeling than his accomplices have mustered for burying a whole economy.






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