“These Numbers Don’t Look Good”

Margin Call: 4/10

Brandon Haffner

“Margin Call” is “Wall Street” without the character development, or Glengarry Glen Ross without the dynamic script.  Not that it doesn’t have intriguing intentions.  It’s essentially a fictional representation of the 24 hour period in which wealthy wall street tycoons make a major decision that causes, in part, the major financial recession of 2008.

An appetizing premise.  But the main course never comes.  The film is all tension, all hype, all lead-in, and no substance.  The central character, a rocket scientist turned wall street trader (“the money here is considerably more attractive” he explains), stumbles across some numbers on his computer in the office one day that are, in so many words, bad.  He shows his buddy co-worker, and they speak generally and vaguely about the direness of the situation.

And I don’t exaggerate when I say that this scene embodies what the film relies on entirely for entertainment value.  It starts with the young traders (Penn Badgley and Star Trek’s Zachary Pinto).  We see their young, serious faces reflected by the computer screens.  They’re worried about what they see, but they don’t go into any details.  They bring up their superior, Mr. Emerson (Paul Bettany).  Surely he will explain what is going on so we, the audience, can understand more clearly what’s at stake.

He looks at the screen and, again, gives it a serious look, and says, “that’s bad,” and not much else.  No explanation, no insider specifics, no attempt to clue the audience in.  There’s some ominous music.  More serious glances.  Then, you guessed it, he brings the information to his superior, Sam (Kevin Spacey).  Again, it’s bad.  Sam brings the information to his superior (Simon Baker).  He to his (Demi Moore).  And so on and on, until we’re at the very top (Jeremy Irons).  Strangely, the higher we go, the less each person seems to know.  I’m not sure how Wall Street could possibly be run with this kind of set up, but maybe that’s the point.  I can’t count how many times an executive says something like, “explain this to me in English, please, you know I don’t understand this stuff.”

By now the movie is almost over.  Irons’ character (who, according to Emerson, pulls in 84 million dollars a year) delivers a flat speech to the wall street traders that I believe is supposed to awe with callousness and/or sharpness, but because we’re so worn down by the lack of substance—or specifics— to that point, we just don’t care anymore.  Especially because his speech, surprise surprise, goes into no more specifics than we’ve received the whole movie.  His little jabs and rich-person wisdom are not funny or even menacing, they’re borderline cliche.

I wanted to like Margin Call.  The acting is good, the intentions are good, and the premise and atmosphere are enticing enough.  It has the feel of a good movie.  But I just can’t get into a movie that’s keeping me at bay with such vague dialogue.

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