*** (out of four)
I couldn’t explain what the term “margin call” means without looking it up, so I’ll let you do the same. Just know that it’s a fittingly unsexy title for an unsexy movie about powerful people in suits talking about numbers. And, yes, I realize that normally a movie featuring people like Simon Baker, Demi Moore and Penn Badgley would be considered sexy.
Despite about zero percent of the population wanting to think any more about the great (terrible/horrible/ridiculous) 2008 financial crisis, “Margin Call” finds strong footing in telling a small story about how one investment firm might have spent the 24 hours after discovering that everything was about to hit the fan.
Zachary Quinto (“Star Trek,” “Heroes”) stars as a relatively low-level risk management analyst who, after his just-fired boss (Stanley Tucci) passes along an external hard drive and advises, “Be careful,” discovers that the firm has so over-leveraged itself that the projected losses exceed the company’s value. What does that mean for the higher-ups (Kevin Spacey, Simon Baker, Demi Moore, Aasif Mandvi and Paul Bettany)? Immediate, late-night meetings that go all the way to the top, which means John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) flying in on his helicopter ASAP. Peter (Quinto) and his sidekick (Badgley), meanwhile, get pulled along for the ride on a long day that won’t be any brighter when the sun comes up.
Aside from Moore, the casting’s all right-on, and so is the language. First-time feature writer-director J.C. Chandor includes a few too many momentum-killing, big-meaning speeches, but “Margin Call” pulses with understated professional restraint, broken only by consistent F-bombs from people with no better means of expressing surprise and horror over the catastrophic situation they’ve created. Few targets are easier than the disgusting excess of executive bonuses; the film’s more centered on the quiet arrogance that allowed large institutions to shoot themselves somewhere more painful than the foot. Up there in the executive dining room, “Margin Call” demonstrates, a few little bills (and the people on the ground chasing them) don’t look like much. The film’s borderline funereal tone shows not just how the influence of one or two people can direct the actions of a big company and trillions of dollars, but how currency designed to establish civility so often turns us against each other.
Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Fridays at 7:30 a.m. on WCIU, the Umpais@tribune.com. @mattpais