Sunday, February 5, 2012

Margin Call (2011)

1 Nomination, Wins TBD

Nomination: Best Writing, Original Screenplay - J.C. Chandor

Margin Call surprised many with its Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay, as the film had not been the recipient of much Oscar buzz. Yet the film's nomination should not be terribly surprising, as it is a sharp, well-paced film about a timely issue, starring some of Hollywood's finest - in other words, total Oscar bait.

J.C. Chandor's screenplay for Margin Call is quite strong in some regards: its dialogue is sharp, it moves along at a perfect clip, and, most of all, tells a story of very complex financial machinations in an understandable and entertaining manner. This is no small feat, as the film could have easily been weighed down by the complexities of the financial transaction that is at the center of the film's narrative.

Yet for all that it does well, the script is not perfect. The film is the story of a difficult decision that must be made by the top executive of a financial institution, but the executive is not the protagonist of the film - he does not appear until the second half of the film. As a result of this structure, the film's major characters move along like chess pieces under Chandor's control, existing only to allow for the decision the film hinges on. This means that none of the film's major characters make any real choices, and thus there is little drama in any of their actions. Nearly the entire film thus feels like the first act of a larger story, which it very much is. Just when the major decision is made, instead of the second act beginning and the audience seeing the drama that follows from the decision, we instead see almost nothing before we move to the third act. The film feels much more like a two act play than a traditional film. While I do not mind films employing variations to the three act structure (my favorite film of the year, Tree of Life, completely eschews the concept), in Margin Call it creates an unsatisfying lack of weight to the character's decisions.

The other aspect of the script that I thought was weak was the extended metaphor of Kevin Spacey's dog. It's not a terrible metaphor, but it is heavy-handed and clumsy, and the film would have been better off without it.

Despite its odd structure, Margin Call is an enjoyable movie, and deserves credit for being the first narrative film to successfully respond to the financial meltdown.

Remaining: 3180 films, 869 Oscars, 5461 nominations

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