Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Best Hollywood Movies of 2011, #5: Margin Call

The Story: Zach Quinto and Penn Badgley are minor analysts in a massive Wall Street firm. They survive a mass purge that claims their boss, Stanley Tucci, only to discover that he left behind a new risk-model that shows that the company is about to implode. They run this news up the chain of command, which causes their bosses to consider an apocalyptic option: trick their own clients into buying all of the firm’s toxic waste.

Why This One: When I read this script I thought it would be too talky and uneventful to work as a movie. What I wasn’t taking into account was debut writer/director J.C. Chandor’s ability to impart all that talk with a compellingly eerie sense of gravity, making this the best straight-up drama of the year.

The Rules it Drove Home:
  1. Every Main Character Must be Volatile: Quinto and Badgley go to say good-bye to Tucci, but they’re really just checking that their own jobs are secure. After an awkward moment, they let him get on the elevator and Penn excuses himself… …but then Quinto decides to try again with a more sincere farewell. Only at this point does Tucci takes pity on him and leave him a copy of the new risk model. This story doesn’t just land in our hero’s lap, it happens because he takes a stop that his colleague wouldn’t take.
  2. Hey, look, it’s yesterday’s rule, Make the Backstory Ironic: I fell in love with this movie when big boss Jeremy Irons quizzed Quinto about where he came from. We find out that, rather than being a trained stock analyst, Quinto started out as an actual rocket scientist, then jumped into finance because the money was so much better. Not only does this give Quinto an ironic backstory, it reveals the theme of the movie: that our cleverest minds have been set to work cannibalizing America’s wealth, rather than building it up. (Irons’s backstory, on the other hand, is never revealed, because we can basically guess where he came from.)
  3. Be Incomprehensible: This is a dizzying maelstrom of unexplained jargon, so why doesn’t that ruin the movie? Doesn’t the audience have to understand the options the heroes are juggling, so that we can play along? To a certain extent, yes, but something delightful happens here: We don’t understand the fine print, no, but that allows us to step back and see the broader picture. This is just as well: If they had held our hands and forced the characters to explain themselves every step of the way, then we still wouldn’t have understood any of it, and we have rolled our eyes at how unrealistic that dialogue was. Instead, Chandor relies of the performances of his stellar cast to sell the emotion, even when we don’t understand a word they’re saying.


Anonymous said...

The time has come for me to ask what you mean by "ironic".

To me, it has to do with something one set of people understands (the audience) and not another set (one or more of the characters). But in this case (and others) you seem to use it to mean "unexpected" or "incongruous" or something like that.

Matt Bird said...

I use "irony" to refer to any substantial gap between expectation and reality.

When we meet a wall street trader, we expect them to have a financial background, not a physics background. In this case, the irony goes deeper: Quinto, in college, expected to rocket America up to the heavens, but he wound up using the same skills to sink America's economy down a bottomless pit.

I guess I could use the term "incongruous", but the two terms aren't exactly synonymous: a cop in a wheelchair is incongruous, but not ironic. A white guy joining the Harlem Globetrotters would be incongruous, but not ironic.

Irony implies a certain amount of emotional pain: Professor X would feel a sting of embarrassment to remember his callow youth, Magneto would feel likewise to remember his CIA-agent beginnings.

How about this: Incongruous = reality is different from our expectations, Ironic = reality has abused our expectations.

Matt Bird said...

I'll have a follow-up post next week on six different types of irony storytellers can use.

Anonymous said...

Okay, so from now on I'm going to start referring to "Air Bud" as the most ironic movie ever made, since a dog playing basketball is a clear abuse of reality.

Honestly, I think the problem with the way that you break it down is that it depends on perspective. I've known for a long time that NASA-bound intellects were being siphoned off to Wall St. So this is actually mundane (to me).

The tension of Michael Corleone's gun in the bathroom is equally tense to all of us because
1. We know that he's got it.
2. We know that the other two don't know.

It's objective.

I'm not being pedantic (at least I think I'm not...). I think creating a backstory that has an interesting resonance with the current story is one tool; irony is a different tool. I don't think anyone benefits by blending them.

Anonymous said...

I just saw your comment about your upcoming posts. I'm looking forward to it!