POSTED ON DECEMBER 14, 2011:
Love and money provide intriguing storylines
The dramatization of real world crimes, tragedies or calamities that affect us all seems to have a two year time limit. In other words, it takes that long for it to seem like the filmmakers arenít cashing in on whatever sad situation it is theyíve chosen to make their film about. Be it 9/11 or the Iraq War. Afghanistanís been going on for over a decade now. Itís got a reality show. Weíre a sick country.
Margin Call, the new, star-studded drama and feature debut from writer/director J.C. Chandor takes us back to the 2008 Wall Street financial meltdown, an event that is still basically the biggest theft ever perpetrated in U.S. history (number of people prosecuted: zero).
A little background: In 2008 investment firms like Lehman Bros. collapsed after it was revealed that much of the assets they were holding on their books (in the form of repackaged mortgages) were essentially worthless. Instead of getting stuck holding the bag firms tried to sell off their bad assets. But when it became clear how toxic were their debts, and the astronomical sums of money that financial insurers would have to fork over to keep the banks afloat, the entire world market cratered as if hit by an earthquake. Being "too big to fail" the American taxpayer came to the rescue and bailed out the banks. Because we're stupid.
Margin Call takes us behind the scenes of a Lehman-like investment bank as a wave of layoffs hits a majority of the traders. Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) is the head of their risk department, who is hard at work trying to figure out just what is off with all these mortgage backed securities when he is unceremoniously let go. He passes his work onto a subordinate (Zachary Qunito) who puts it all together and finds that the firm is completely screwed due to their debt load -- something to do with an inability to sell it off without buying more; the film never makes the gory technobabble particularly clear which is why half the characters ask for it to be explained in English.
When it becomes clear the entire firm is in danger of collapse Quinto goes up the chain of command until he finds himself in a board room full of top-level brass (from Kevin Spacey to Demi Moore to Paul Bettany) and the head of the company, John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), who decides that getting out of the market with as much money as possible is preferable to owning the firm's mistakes. "These people don't lose."
Despite the stellar cast on display, Margin Call is a fairly uneven affair on most levels. The script, by Chandor, has an enclosed feel -- almost like a stage play -- that marginalizes the scope of the film despite the strong performances from the cast (Spacey is a standout here).
Sometimes it looks great, lovely night shots and some great individual scenes are oddly contrasted by some lackadaisical scripting and visual compositions that can come off as flat even after a scene where a shot looked great. The by-the-numbers writing doesn't really make the nuts and bolts of the meltdown very comprehensible. But again, the great cast staring intently at computer monitors or at each other over boardroom tables make the financial gobbledygook seem really important.
The performances are the reason to stick with Margin Call. Spacey is great, Paul Bettany is typically perfect, Jeremy Irons oozes slimy intelligence, Stanley Tucci makes me wish I were Stanley Tucci. Even Demi Moore gets in a couple of decent scenes. Qunito continues to prove himself a decent actor -- at least enough for him to shake off the stigma (great though it is) of Commander Spock.
But, in the end, a more entertaining, informative, concise and enraging version of this story exists, the 2010 documentary, Inside Job. For all the emphasis Margin Call puts on character, it's lack of focus on the real tragedy of the 2008 meltdown subverts the films own sense of gravity. Like a fairly well made movie-of-the-week with a great cast -- it's neither bad nor particularly great.
There are about a half a dozen reasons for me to hate Like Crazy, on paper at least. Longing love stories are generally not my thing, mainly because the people in them seem impossibly contrived and thinly written and the plotting is generally the same, weaving between passion and conflict, opportunity and obstacle, until the ending -- that of course finds our lovelorn antagonists kissing in front of a sunset made out of sugar gumdrops and under clouds that look like frolicking puppies.
And while, Like Crazy does conform too many of those conceits something about it seems, at least, a little more genuine than most of its romantic drama brethren.
Jacob (Anton Yelchin, Chekov to Quinto's Spock) is an L.A. based furniture designer who begins dating a stunning British exchange student, Anna (Felicity Jones). They seem perfect for each other, so much so that Anna can't bring herself to leave when her visa expires. She stays with Jacob for the summer before returning to England with her laid back parents (Oliver Muirhead and Alex Kingston). Commence longing, long distance relationship.
Jacob comes to England to see her and she wishes to return to America with him. But Homeland Security is a bitch and, due to Anna overstaying her visa, she is denied re-entrance to the States. The relationship begins to wilt for Jacob who decides to move on with his carpentry assistant, Sam (Jennifer Lawrence). Anna, meanwhile, is lovelorn but able to enjoy time with her hunky neighbor, Simon (Charlie Bewley).
But neither of them can shake their feelings for each other (clearly). When Anna's buzzed dad suggests getting married to beat the immigration issues it seems they might have found a path to happiness. But things are never as easy as they appear.
Written and directed by Drake Doremus (Douchebag -- no seriously that was his last movie that I now need to see), with writer Ben York Jones, Like Crazy winds up being a fairly touching piece of work. It's kind of hard not to root for the futility of the characters plight, desperate love across an ocean and despite the strictures of the government. The main problem lies in the plotting, which doesn't have a ton of momentum or even a clear timeline (we're told after a while that a couple of years have passed in their relationship but in "movie time" it only feels like months).
Like Crazy has plenty of visual panache even when the camera is not absorbing the wealth of good looks that are Yelchin and Jones. The pair themselves don't have a ton of chemistry -- it seemed a little better between Yelchin and Lawrence which counter-intuitively had me kind of rooting for them to get together -- but their performances are fine. It's easy to see what a casting director saw in them but the fact that I was even thinking about that is part of the problem. I just couldn't commit to forgetting about the conceits of the genre, the too perfect pairing of Yelchin and Jones and the been-there-done-that nature of this thing called the romantic drama.
But it is sweet and it has moments that are actually genuine which is more than I can say for the raft of shitty romance films to which Like Crazy is blood related.
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