Wednesday, October 10, 2012

More on "Margin Call"

After watching it all the way through four times now, it's pretty clear to me that "Margin Call" is going to be one of those movies that I'll never get tired of.  I've written about it before, but it's worth saying a few more words.

The movie takes place over the course of 24 hours, and is about a financial firm that melts down overnight, after it is discovered that the formula by which they've been packaging investments for the past year doesn't really work.  In fact, most of their holdings are now worthless, and during a series of increasingly tense meetings, decisions are made on how to keep the firm afloat - investors be damned.

The story is great - good enough to be nominated for an Academy Award - but what really makes the movie special is the acting, and a series of scenes featuring the aforementioned meetings.  It's worth saying a little bit about each one of those scenes.  I'm sure there are spoilers here, so caveat emptor.

1 - Not really a meeting, but the scene where Zachary Quinto - playing a young risk management analyst - delves into the flashdrive left in his lap by his laid off boss Stanley Tucci.  Quinto is sitting alone in the office, working figures, earbuds in, and in a terrific visual moment, reaches the conclusion that the numbers just don't add up.

2 - Quinto has now called in his young colleague and the man who is now his boss, played with flair and elan by Paul Bettany.  Bettany has been around the firm long enough to have developed a finely tuned sense of cynicism, and having returned to the office after a night of drinking (celebrating with the fellow employees who were not laid off), is a bit (or a lot) drunk.  Quinto starts telling the grim story, prompting some smart ass comments, but again in a flash Bettany gets it - and proves that it is possible to "act drunk" but immediately shift to "act sober."  One moment he is almost slurring his words and wondering why he is there at 11 p.m., and the next moment he is all action.

3 - Bettany now gets to lay the story out for his boss, played by an even more veteran and decorated actor - Kevin Spacey.  Having just left his beloved dog at the vet to be put to sleep, the last place that Spacey wants to be is work.  Spacey quickly defines his character (who earlier in the day has given an entirely insincere pep talk to those who were not laid off that morning) by commenting, when Bettany pulls up a spreadsheet on the computer, "Jesus Christ, you know I can't read those things."  But within moments he gets it - "Are those numbers right?" 

4 - Up the ladder we go to the next meeting, with the two young risk managers, Bettany and Spacey being joined by Demi Moore, now the chief risk manager, an attorney and analyst from the corporate office, and Simon Baker as Spacey's boss.  I have never watched Baker's hit TV show, "The Mentalist," but based on this performance alone I might just give it a try.  Whether it was intentional or not, it's an interesting casting decision for anyone who remembers the relationship between the characters played by Spacey and Baker in "L.A. Confidential."  Now the tables are turned - somewhere along the line, Baker - even though much younger - has passed Spacey on the corporate ladder, and is nothing less than a shark in a well-tailored suit.  Baker is amazing in this scene - looking at the package that Spacey and Bettany has put together, he quickly gets the problem.  But the best part of the scene is the interplay between Baker and Quinto when Demi Moore has asked Quinto to recite his vita.  Suffice to say, Quinto is well qualified, leading to a classic line from Baker that I just can't spoil.

Spacey is also amazing in this scene, speaking in that familar, almost staccato rhythm that should be familiar to anyone who's seen a movie with Kevin Spacey.  The tension between him and Baker just adds to their performances.

5 - And then, just when you think things can't get any better, they do with the introduction of the firm's CEO, Jeremy Irons.  My guess is that Irons probably had more fun playing this role since lending his voice as the evil Scar in "The Lion King."  He's flamboyant, some might argue just skirting the boundaries of ham, but never quite crossing over.  Though he looks old and skinny, never for a moment do you doubt his sheer power.  Without question, the people in the room with him for this meeting are afraid of him.  He has so many good lines just in this one scene that there are way too many to mention, so I'll settle for what he says to Quinto when he's trying to make him relax and tell the group what his analysis shows:

"Maybe you could tell me what is going on. And please, speak as you might to a young child. Or a golden retriever. It wasn't brains that brought me here; I assure you of that."

The movie loses a bit of steam after this scene, but picks up nicely when the strategy to save the firm is unfolded.  I'll save the rest of the good stuff for another post.  But mark my words - you need to see this movie.

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