Margin Call is an awards season anomaly, an off-the-radar drama that, even after having performed well at festivals, never seemed to be a serious player, its tacky posters and mishmash cast of (mostly) B-Listers suggesting a gem bound for little more than a cult life on video. But after netting some very good ink from some top Gotham critics, one of whom dubbed it “the best Wall Street movie ever made,” the film became an unlikely buzz gainer, and went on to collect three Independent Spirit Awards citations (two nods and a Robert Altman Award win), a National Board of Review Spotlight Award for first-time writer/director J.C. Chandor, and a Best First Film award for Chandor from the New York Film Critics Circle. The artistic community’s general support of—or, at the very least, deep fascination with—the Occupy Wall Street movement has certainly helped this smart, well-acted, dawn-of-collapse thriller to gain attention beyond a Certified Fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes. But the perception of certain critics—and wannabe tastemakers who fancy themselves critics—that Margin Call is a bona fide Oscar candidate in multiple categories, including Best Picture, is the stuff of wishful delusion.
The common rationale is that the film’s uniformly strong cast has the potential to clinch it a Best Ensemble nom from the Screen Actors Guild, an accolade that, historically, translates into Oscar love in the Best Picture race. But with far more lustrous heavyweights like The Artist, The Descendants, Midnight in Paris, The Help, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Tree of Life, My Week with Marilyn, and even Albert Nobbs standing out in front, such a move seems quite unlikely, however true it is that SAG has deviated to reward the casts of offbeat films like Hustle & Flow. Regardless of how many name actors grace the screen, Margin Call doesn’t have the widespread wow to take its major honors past the Indie Spirits, nor does it have the Best Pic mojo or baity lead turn that so often attract SAG votes. The more plausible, if still improbable, Oscar scenario would be a Best Supporting Actor nod for Kevin Spacey, whose work as crumbling moral center Sam Rogers has won him his best raves in years. Co-stars Jeremy Irons and Paul Bettany are gifted with some meaty, provocative monologues (the latter offering a bitter stew of cocky logic as he preaches the necessities of traders), but Spacey gets to recite the deal-closing doom speech, an admission that his crooked company will be selling everything, including its employees’ souls (the looming, inevitable death of Sam’s dog stands as a cold metaphor).
From such scenes, Chandor is able to mine potent workplace drama, and pluck tender nerves that are widespread among the current populace. As director, he deftly draws you into burning discussions with a kind of contained franticness, and he’s savvy enough to include pointed, telling shots, like the film’s very best, in which head of securities Jared Cohen (Simon Baker) and head of risk assessment Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore) trade cryptic thoughts on impending economic meltdown while flanking a cleaning lady in an elevator. But its Chandor’s Original Screenplay that holds this movie’s best, and perhaps only, hope for Oscar recognition, its conveyance of Wall Street soullessness via corporate niceties more cutting and disquieting than anything ever served up by Oliver Stone. A formidable wordsmith who certainly did his homework, Chandor incorporates the typical element of fine men abandoning virtuous former jobs for bigger checks, but is keen to underline the boundless arrogance of the Wall Street enterprise, kicking things off with the downsize-driven dismissal of a top risk-assessment officer (Stanley Tucci), dwindling the risk department of the film’s seemingly untouchable company down to a staff of three.
The problems of the script spawn from the very thing for which its garnered the most praise: making understandable the stock-market gobbledygook that got us all into this mess in the first place. It’s hard to imagine anyone fully converting into uninsulting layman’s terms the business of the 2008 crash (which saw companies like Margin Call’s ruthless firm sell off scads of worthless mortgages to save their own hides), and Chandor puts up a valiant fight in tackling so convoluted a subject. But his repetitive, “speak to me in English,” “speak to me like a child” narrative tactic, wherein folks like Jeremy Irons’s growly CEO continually insist that things be spelled out for them, registers as transparent and not much less expository than voiceover narration. The suggestion that so many individuals within this rarefied world would need such frequent clarification is a serious stretch, and numerous exchanges are all set for a closing line of, “One more time, for the people in the back.” What’s more, for all the supposed explanation that’s doled out by characters like Zachary Qunito’s “rocket scientist” Peter Sullivan, the dialogue remains rather twisty and impenetrable, making the movie feel a bit like it’s adopted some of that arrogance it condemns. A fine and timely film, Margin Call deserves to be seen, and Chandor has a bright career ahead of him. But let’s just get it out on the table, in plain English: a major Oscar contender this is not.
Surest bets: Best Original Screenplay.
Possibilities: Best Supporting Actor, Kevin Spacey.
Shouldn’t be Overlooked: None.