DIRECTED BY J.C. CHANDOR
STARRING: KEVIN SPACEY, PAUL BETTANY, JEREMY IRONS, ZACHARY QUINTO, PENN BADGLEY, SIMON BAKER, MARY McDONNELL with DEMI MOORE and STANLEY TUCCI
There are two reasons as to why, I think, you’d want your Drama film to have an ensemble cast lined up. One: Your subject matter, your content is so dry you wouldn’t possibly survive without strong actor-endorsement. Two: There is no way you can possibly extract convincing performances from a second-rung cast as a Director, where to get a haul of A-list stars would mean a tenfold reduction of workload as well as a chunk of responsibility off your shoulders.
J.C. Chandor’s ‘Margin Call’ fits both explanations. Perhaps the premise, the theme of the movie makes it of utmost importance that it should communicate, the desperation to get word across necessitating the star-spangled banner the film signs itself on. But then you’ll find that it’s not a public welfare announcement. It’s one of those ‘quite there, but not quite’ sort of dramas where seriousness isn’t synonymous with sincerity. It’s theatrical, larger-than-life fiction voicing real-time thought. The actors make the movie, the movie is about believability of performances and the performances, in a full circle, are supposed to add meat to the skeleton – the core idea, as synthesized. It’s a difficult task.
Contrast that thought with ‘the Girlfriend Experience.’ This is where Soderbergh, I felt, begged to differ. He had an option. He could’ve cast an actress to play the misunderstood, almost always misrepresented monster of a woman whom the world has no clue about and yet is quick to spring up with its judgment, labeling her to put itself in an advantageous position as compared to that monster. Or he could’ve hired the monster. Simple. An actress would play a template, a product of research, a mix of what we know of Linda Lovelace, of Julianne Moore and Heather Graham in ‘Boogie Nights’; of Elisabeth Shue in ‘Leaving Las Vegas.’ But Sasha Grey, on the other hand, could give us an impromptu. No one can play Paris Hilton better than Paris Hilton. It’s not an acting credit. It’s simple common sense.
Half of the trophy is in the bag if the viewer doesn’t associate himself with the actors playing the roles, at least in a technical Drama. It’s why ‘the Social Network’ worked. It was an ensemble of actors either barely significant or snug fits in their respective roles, a case of promise than reliability. But then, how in the world can you possibly reel in half a dozen forty-plus actors who the world doesn’t really know, how many Christoph Waltzes can one possibly find? It’s a logistical difficulty, I understand.
But Demi Moore? Tying her hair back isn’t going to make her Tilda Swinton. ‘Disclosure.’ ‘Striptease.’ ‘Indecent Proposal.’ Her in this is like Cameron Diaz playing social worker in a movie called ‘the Good Teacher’ that she can’t even spell right. Sure she’s played Corporate before, but what kind? Moore as risk-management executive Sarah Robertson is lavishly miscast. She squirms like an eel in her clothes, except in this case she’s not supposed to.
We’re introduced to the premise in a cut-down, ‘Up in the Air’ style. We know the ground rules. Never use the term ‘fired’. Never mean to be hostile thought you obviously are. Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) is taken into a glass room with two women, one sugar-coating the drill, the other keeping it straight. It takes him a while to work around the jargon. He then tells his much-younger boss Will Emerson (Paul Bettany with a British accent, thankfully) that he’s halfway through working on a ‘shipwreck.’ Will tells him it’s not his concern anymore. He then asks ‘who’ (as in who decided to fire him) and narrows down on Ms. Robertson. He meets the woman on his way outside and asks her to fuck herself.
This isn’t before he hands a flash-drive to Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), a highly-qualified and well-mannered analyst who works under him, asking him to continue with his work and to ‘be careful.’ Peter, for all intents and purposes, is thirty years old (twenty eight, he says) and shows the caution and maturity of one. His partner/friend Seth (Penn Badgley) is twenty three and accordingly erratic. Peter works on the contents of the flash drive and figures out that it spells impending doom. He finds that, according to the company’s volatility levels and consequential effects, the losses incurred in two weeks from now would be more than its Market Capitalization. Which, technically, means that Sam Rogers’ (Kevin Spacey) assertion that the 20 percent of staff who weren’t let go aren’t as lucky after all.
With the problem presented, we’re taken through the obstacle course in a hierarchical path. Peter calls Seth and asks him to get Will with him to the office. He tells him it’s not a situation where you clock overtime. Will, the saturated forty-something who finds it in his system to vie his Boss, gets serious and calls Sam, who’s cradling his dying dog. Characteristic of a departmental head, Sam can’t do the math, so he asks Peter to. Once done, he takes it from there to a committee headed by knucklehead Jared Cohen (Simon Baker) and consisting of Ms. Robertson and Ramesh Shah (Aasif Mandvi) who works numbers. The situation, as they find, is pretty much out of hand.
Forty minutes and I hadn’t gotten my head in until Cohen decides that the situation is too big for him to handle. John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), the Chairman figure, steps in, turning out to be most believable amongst cartoon-sketches shaded grey. It’s when he asks Peter to explain the situation to him in ‘simple English’ that we know what’s going on. “I can assure you that it’s not Brains that got me sitting on this chair”, he smiles. He speaks our mind. He’s not a pastiche of every tough nut we’ve come across before. I found Tuld to be of striking originality; imperfect, even clumsy, honest and brutal. “If you’re first out of the door, that’s not called panicking.” Obvious as it sounds, he backs Cohen’s decision to sellout. Sam, with all of Spacey’s exasperation, wants to come out clean. He wants people to want to buy from them again. Tuld and Cohen intend to cash in on the crisis. They’re flipsides of the same tainted coin.
‘Margin Call’ is like ‘Titanic’ from the moment it hits the iceberg. Except, here, everyone survives. Even Eric Dale. They’re all on life-jackets out at sea, searching for land in their chosen directions. Chandor romanticizes with his characters, glorifying their lives, their greed – even their pain, never rendering them obsolete. They’re God-men, the only bearers of a truth that they suffer from but won’t let out, lest it comes out on its own in due course. He’s especially commendable in playing pretty close to our ego, never giving way to the remotest assumption that any of his characters, however hard-hit, ever show to be pitiable before our eyes. This is possibly one good reason in casting Demi Moore, who doesn’t need a history to be hated. The others, on their part, win our apathy by speaking their mind. You know these people have had their fill. And you know they’re ready to take a dump on you. Fuck them, you think.
There’s a sweeping shot of the office about three-quarters into the movie. The computers are on, lights are out and there’s no sign of life. That shot inspired me. I’ve always been fond of looking at machines in an office when it’s closed. I think of it as a sign of futility. What use is a machine without man around? Of course, I exclude automatons from this list. The system is only as good as the people in it, the philosophy only as watertight as the believer sees it to be. ‘Margin Call’ is in good faith, but it tries too hard to impress. A couple of stars off the cast with interesting replacements, we have something solid. It’d do well on Broadway. It makes for a decent movie already – a very impressive debut.