Berlinale Dispatch: Zachary Quinto, Margin Call Top Fest's First Full Day

The problem with having festival commitments is that there are days when you can manage to see only one movie before deadline, while your colleagues are seeing two, three or -- heaven forbid -- more. But the sting, or at least the vague feeling of inadequacy, is lessened when that one movie exceeds your expectations. Margin Call is a thriller of sorts (though it's also something of a comedy, albeit a grim one) set in the early days of the financial crisis, a fictionalized but all too believable account of one crucial day at a Wall Street investment firm. It's also the debut feature of writer-director J.C. Chandor, and while it hits a few false notes, it's still a remarkably assured piece of filmmaking. You may not think you want to sit through a nondocumentary film about the financial meltdown -- I sure didn't. But Margin Call, like money itself, is weirdly seductive; it wheedles you into caring about characters you don't particularly like, without ever expecting you to approve of their behavior.

Margin Call opens on one of those grim days that most working people can relate to, especially in the current climate: A number of workers at this particular firm have just been given their walking papers and, clutching those all-too-familiar cardboard boxes in their hands, they begin drifting through corridors and into elevators like lost souls whose blood has been drained by zombies. Stanley Tucci plays a risk-management specialist who's a little surprised when his shoulder is tapped. The axmistress who does the job (interestingly, these bearers of bad tidings are crisp, overly efficient women, while all the fire-ees are men) informs him that because of the sensitive nature of his work, his computer files will be locked and his phone will be deactivated immediately. He protests that he's working on a significant project that he'd like to finish, but he's told that management has already worked out the transition details. Yeah, right.

Eric is angry and frustrated, but he's too conscientious to let the issue drop completely. As he's being escorted from the building, he hands a flash drive to one of the young analysts who works for him, played by Zachary Quinto, asking him to have a look. He adds, with horror-movie ominousness, "Be careful."

What Peter discovers distresses him, and when he clues his superiors into the contents of Eric's drive, it distresses them, too: Not only is it likely to destroy the firm; it could be the one last tipsy block that will topple the whole economy. (Chandor never specifies what this data thundercloud is, but it's easy enough to figure out.) This is bad news for the firm, for the country, for the world, for the universe, and no one is happy to hear it: Not Paul Bettany, a Nicorette-chewing middle manager who occasionally shows a spark of something resembling a scruple, only to quickly snuff it out. Nor Kevin Spacey, as a trading-floor manager who specializes in revving up his employees with rousing but hollow pep talks. Nor Jeremy Irons as a frighteningly powerful CEO (he arrives at HQ via helicopter) with silky manners and a switchblade where his conscience should be.

That's plenty of actors for one movie, but Margin Call has even more: Demi Moore is a witchy corporate climber who wears her hair parted in the middle and severely drawn back, like a governess in a gothic novel; Simon Baker is the firm's chief counsel, and he's so oily-smooth you imagine he could slither around corners without even moving his legs.

At first Chandor seems to be luring us into a kind of cushy security, where the chief entertainment will be watching these characters panic. But scene by scene, he constructs a chambered nautilus of claustrophobia: Even though we're not complicit in the evil these characters have created, we can't escape it, either. This isn't just their problem; it's ours too.

For a first-time film, Margin Call is astonishingly well-polished -- perhaps too polished. The picture might have more emotional weight if it were just a little scruffier around the edges: Chandor seems obsessed with dotting every "i" and crossing every "t." But his script is exceedingly supple, and he appears to have a rapport with his actors, nearly all of whom are a pleasure to watch here. Spacey may not be particularly understated, but he's also far less cartoony than he's been in years, and his final scene is a stunner. Quinto is fascinating to watch, partly for the fact that, with those exaggerated patent-leather eyebrows (and even without Spock ears), he simply looks like an alien. (One of the movie's subtler jokes is that in this world, he is an alien of sorts.) And Irons just goes for broke, nearly sending his performance over the top but stopping it just in time. When he asks Quinto to explain the firm's predicament to him, he urges the young analyst to use the most straightforward language possible, to imagine he's "speaking to a small child, or a golden retriever." Irons plays the moment as a bit of self-deprecation that's also a naked display of superiority. His character favors plain speech, which is admirable enough until we realize that he values directness because it allows him to act faster, and with more ruthlessness.

Margin Call is an ambitious piece of work, particularly for a first film. Chandor seems to have skipped the usual "making a little indie movie featuring two characters hanging out in a room, talking" stage of development, and maybe that's a good thing. He's given us a brash, reasonably intelligent piece of mainstream filmmaking. There's little that's modest about it, and that's what makes it sing.


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