Film & TV

Dramatizing the Financial Crisis, Tone-Deaf to the Times, in "Margin Call"

Sure to be drowned out by the drum circles at the Occupy protests, writer/director J.C. Chandor's lifeless Margin Call depicts roughly 36 hours at an unnamed Manhattan investment firm at the dawn of the 2008 financial freak-out. Chandor's debut feature audaciously asks us to empathize with obscenely overpaid risk analysts and their bosses, a gambit that fails not only because of what's happening at Zuccotti Park but also largely because his characters are little more than mouthpieces for blunt speechifying. After the first of many time-lapse shots of the New York skyline, 80 percent of the risk-management team at the anonymous company is axed. One of those let go is Eric (Stanley Tucci); before the elevator doors close, he hands a USB drive to underling Peter (Zachary Quinto). The junior associate takes a look at the files after-hours and realizes that the company's assets will soon be worthless. Higher-ups are summoned back to the office, including Sam (Kevin Spacey), who meets at 2 a.m. with his warring superiors. An hour later, Jeremy Irons' reptilian CEO John Tuld arrives by helicopter, demanding that the firm unload its toxic assets — a directive met by Spacey's unconvincingly indignant remark: "You're selling something you know has no value." Margin Call, which premiered at Sundance in January, suffers from a deflated sense of timeliness; its thin origin story about how the economy went to hell — released three years after the fact and against the roar of the real-life "99 percent" — seems like an out-of-touch exercise in hand-wringing.

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Melissa Anderson is the senior film critic at the Village Voice, for which she first began writing in 2000. Her work also appears in the publications of the Voice’s film partner, Voice Media Group: LA Weekly, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press and Dallas Observer.