“Margin Call” (Director: JC Chandor)
JoJo Whilden

WHY IT MIGHT SELL: A big, serious movie about the 2008 financial crisis, with a, big serious cast (Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci, Zachary Quinto). REPS: UTA/Elwes/Untitled

Topical drama about the financial crisis lacks the visceral punch to grab an audience.  

Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons and Zachary Quinto star in J.C. Chandor's feature film debut.

PARK CITY -- (Premieres) At the Q&A following the star-studded premiere of Margin Call at Sundance, Stanley Tucci echoed the sentiments of many of the other cast members when he said he was drawn to the unconventionality of first-time director J.C. Chandor's script. "There's no melodrama in it," Tucci said. "There's no drama in it. That's why you may be the only people in the world to see it." Actually, Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate had already bought the film in the first big purchase of the festival. But Tucci's jocular words may come back to haunt the distributors when the movie opens.

The film is billed as a thriller, and the music by Nathan Larson is definitely full of ominous rumblings. But there are few thrills in this drama set in a New York investment firm during one 24-hour period in 2008, when the scope of the looming financial crisis is just becoming clear to the key players at the firm. A low-level analyst (played by one of the film's producers, Zachary Quinto) is the first to recognize that the firm's assets are about to lose most of their value. The question is what to do about it. Should they alert their clients, or should they sell and try to make a modest killing before the bad news spreads? Gradually this question is kicked all the way up the firm's chain of command to the CEO (Jeremy Irons), who flies in to assess the situation during an all-night meeting.

While the moral dilemmas facing these executives are very relevant to understanding the economic crisis that has plagued the country during the last few years, the film never develops a sense of urgency. This is because the issues are left rather dry and abstruse. The higher-level executive keeps saying to the lower-level wonks, "Speak to me in plain English," but the characters never quite succeed in explaining the financial mumbo jumbo in concise terms that laymen can grasp. At times one might feel in need of a Ph.D. in economics to be fully engaged with this movie.

This isn't the first time the material has been handled. Jason Reitman's Up in the Air handled the subject of corporate downsizing with a biting satiric edge, and more recently, John Wells' The Company Men focused more directly on the human consequences of the financial meltdown. While that film was more conventional than Margin Call, it was also more affecting, with better developed characters, and even so, it has struggled at the box office. Viewers who want a deeper understanding of the financial crisis would get more out of Charles Ferguson's Oscar-nominated documentary, Inside Job.

The first-rate cast cannot be faulted. Chandor has assembled an extraordinary ensemble that includes Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Simon Baker, and Demi Moore as the one woman in the executive suites. Spacey captures the moral anguish of the most tormented of the executives. Tucci as the man fired in the opening scene also illuminates the human costs of this meltdown. Baker and Irons exude reptilian coldness as the more bottom-line-oriented executives. It must be said that none of the characters, whatever their moral qualms, ends up acting very admirably, so there's no satisfying payoff for the audience, except for a rather maudlin final scene in which Spacey buries his beloved dog.

Technical credits are top-notch. Frank DeMarco's sleek cinematography of the Manhattan skyline effectively immerses us in the soulless but inviting universe where these financial dramas played out. Sadly, the script doesn't burrow as rewardingly beneath the glittering surfaces.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, Premieres (Roadside Attractions, Lionsgate)
Production: Myriad Pictures, Benaroya Pictures, Before the Door
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, Stanley Tucci, Simon Baker, Demi Moore
Director-screenwriter: J.C. Chandor
Producers: Neal Dodson, Zachary Quinto, Corey Moosa, Michael Benaroya, Robert Ogden Barnum, Joe Jenckes
Executive producers: Cassian Elwes, Laura Rister, Josh Blum, Kirk D'Amico, Randy Manis, Anthony Gudas, Michael Corso, Rose Ganguzza
Director of photography: Frank DeMarco
Production designer: John Paino
Music: Nathan Larson
Costume designer: Caroline Duncan
Editor: Pete Beaudreau
No rating, 108 minutes