'Margin Call': The people who brought us the Great Recession
'So, what's your package going to be like?" one just-axed risk management exec asks another.
She doesn't know, but she's been assured that her severance - and benefits, and options - are going to be generous. And this after she has just presided over the immolation of her firm.
It's a piece of dialogue - acted out between Stanley Tucci and Demi Moore - that would make the Occupy Wall Street gang even madder than they already are.
J.C. Chandor's Margin Call, a nicely understated drama set on the eve of the epic 2008 financial crash, goes up the elevator and into the sleek offices of an investment services outfit not dissimilar to Lehman Bros. They've been bundling subprime mortgages, they've been cooking the books, and they've been found out.
Margin Call is rife with smart, sharp performances. Paul Bettany is a chain-smoking exec who takes home just under $3 million a year - and who breaks down his expenses for an awestruck junior analyst: $300,000 for the mortgage, $125,000 for the car, $75,000 for the hookers, etc. Kevin Spacey is the veteran who manages the floor; he has seen the markets through good times and bad, but never like this. But the thing that's really breaking him up: His dog is dying.
Zachary Quinto is the young brainiac who gets handed a flash-drive with the scary numbers on it, and whose calculations of what the firm has gotten itself into lead to a late-night emergency meeting of the board, and a last-ditch sell-off. Even Jeremy Irons, who has been chewing up the scenery of late, amps things down here. He plays the chief executive officer of this house of cards - a house of cards with a helicopter landing pad on its roof.
But for all its cool and nuance (Chandor even works drama out of a shot of two men standing grimly on an escalator), Margin Call is not a movie to love. The cliches start bubbling up (this job is better than digging ditches, somebody says - yeah, but at least with a ditch, there's something to show for it), and the blubbering in the toilet stalls doesn't elicit much sympathy, either.
These are the people who brought on the Great Recession. Sure, there were "normal" people, "real" people, as Bettany and Quinto's characters call the plebes, who were complicit by default, watching their IRAs and stock portfolios rocket upward.
But it's hard to feel compassion for these Masters of the Universe. I'm not even sure Chandor wants us to, but if he doesn't, then what's the point?