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Kevin Spacey Awards Grab Double Feature: Margin Call by J.C. Chandor and Father of Invention by Jonathan D. Krane and Trent Cooper

Well, it’s Monday, and I’m cranky, and the new At the Movies tells me Father of Invention and Margin Call will both be hitting theatres soon. I could do a Script to Screen on either of them, but let’s face it: I’m not going to see either one. Let’s take a look at them now, shall we?

Margin Call by J.C. Chandor

Let’s talk about why two films that directly addressed the 2008 financial crisis—Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and The Company Men—don’t work. Now, I didn’t read the scripts for either, so I can’t say one way or the other if the movie improves or worsens aspects of the scripts. I’m more concerned with the movies that got released, both of which I saw and reviewed. The chief problem with both films is a desire to play the blame game—unregulated investment banks in one, big business in the other—while saddling us with main characters who seem like total douchenozzles.

Seriously, am I supposed to be upset about Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck) losing his membership to a country club that costs more than most people make in a year? Am I supposed feel a rush of excitement when Jake (Shia LeBeouf) excels at a job specifically designed to fuck people over? It’s not that the first Wall Street didn’t have its own problems—symptomatic of most of Olive Stone’s early work, he’s more interested in myth-making archetypes than real characters—but one thing that made Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) relatable was the fact that he had no real clue what he was doing. Not at first. He initially thought he was helping “smart people” who “deserved” help, at the expense of people who weren’t smart enough to play the game. It was only when his job hit close to home that he started to piece together the flaws of Gordon Gekko’s (Michael Douglas) philosophy.

Jake has no such problems. He and Bobby are well-off people who want more, and they have no qualms with taking it. Jake does it by unethical, should-be-illegal means, and unlike Bud, Jake knows they’re unethical. The Company Men wants desperately to appeal to average, middle-class people by giving us a character “just like them,” so Bobby’s desire for more is “just like everyone else’s,” except for the part where his biggest problem is that he has to drive a used Ford minivan instead of a slick, new Porsche, and the people John Wells tried to pander to have the choice between repairs on that shitty minivan that they can’t afford, or taking the bus.

But the problem isn’t that these films target the “haves” without understanding the “have-nots.” The question of whether or not people in this country have overextended themselves out of greed and stupidity or corporate manipulation by forces they can’t even begin to understand. I prefer to think it’s a combination of both, but I think that’s too much of a gray area for most people. The real problem with these films is that they don’t really understand the “haves,” either. Wall Street: Money Never Sleep, true to Stone’s roots (but without the manic insanity that made his early work so entertaining), portrays banking executives as a sinister cabal who decide the fate of the world in an oak-paneled conference room reminiscent of the Illuminati on The X-Files. The Company Men portray business executives as blundering idiots who would rather have a fancy new office building than employees to fill it.

If the films get both ends of the spectrum wrong, it’s hard to get outraged no matter how one feels about the impact of the financial crisis.

Let’s check in with my unofficial arch-nemesis, ScriptShadow, to see how he feels about Margin Call:

Now this.

Is how.

You write.

A script.

Hit us hard at the opening bell and keep on punching.

Margin Call is a script that takes the financial crisis and actually DOES something with it. We’ve seen other writers take a crack at this subject matter, like Allan Loeb with Money Never Sleeps (Wall Street 2) and John Wells with The Company Men. But while both those scripts had nice moments, this proves that with a little ingenuity and good storytelling, David can top Goliath.

This is a movie about money. About what happens when you’re in charge of all the money in the world. About being dependent on that money. It’s about greed. It’s about realizing that no matter how smart you are, sooner or later someone smarter is going to come along and break up your party.

Wow, that sounds like a great script! Too bad it’s a gross, almost comical misrepresentation of this script. I don’t know what, exactly, he thought he was reading, because the Margin Call I read follows a recipe for tedium: gather characters in a room, have them explain the financial crisis, have a new character enter the room (or, in a rare burst of creativity, have the characters move to a new location where new characters wait), and then reexplain the financial crisis by putting basically the same dialogue into different characters’ mouths. Keep that going until an “ironic” final scene where a character is either burying cash or a dead body, and you have yourself two hours of nonstop excitement!

In all seriousness, Margin Call is a script of great but largely unsuccessful ambition. The writer, J.C. Chandor (who will also direct the film), seems to want to humanize the architects of the crisis. He sets the story in an investment house not-so-subtly inspired by Goldman Sachs and populates the script with opportunities to sympathize with the characters, but he does not create characters complex enough to sympathize with.

As the story unspools, each new character represents a step up the corporate ladder, all the way up to the CEO. But watching these new characters react to the news of a serious miscalculation, initially discovered by an inquisitive mathematician, does little to add to the drama. With the possible exception of CEO John Tuld (played by Jeremy Irons in the film), each character reacts in exactly the same way, asks the same questions in the same ways, and then moves on to the next character. The difference between this and a script like The Social Network—another dialogue-heavy story in which characters talk about inherently un-cinematic ideas—lies in the quality of the dialogue. Even at his most sanctimonious, Aaron Sorkin is a master of dialogue, and though he often receives (legitimate) criticism for not giving his characters individual voices, The Social Network does not have that problem.

Margin Call does, and adding insult to injury, Chandor’s dialogue isn’t a tenth as good as Sorkin at his worst. Even with them having the same rhythm and using the same words to describe the same ideas, their words lack both the musicality of an expert playwright and the mundane poetry of real life. They sound like bland newspaper articles, if news articles were written as a Q&A.

So that’s a problem—Margin Call primarily uses dialogue to limp forward, but the characters don’t distinguish themselves through the dialogue. That leaves their actions, which are minimal. The only character who seems to be doing anything potentially interesting remains offscreen for the majority of the script. He’s fired in the opening sequence, and the other characters spend the remainder of the script trying to find him. They believe he has information crucial to figuring out why their math is off, but he’s mysteriously disappeared. Is he on the run from corporate goons? Is he hiding in his house with the lights off? Has he fled to the Caymans? I don’t know, but I’m much more interested in finding out than in watching another banker explain something clearly understood by page 20.

But the disappearance of this character, Eric, speaks to the biggest problem with the script—nobody relates to one another on a human level. Nobody really cares about Eric. Even when they worry about him committing suicide because he Knows Too Much, it has so much more to do with the information he possesses than with compassion. Despite Chandor’s obvious desire to humanize these characters, he never slows down and lets us see them as people. The film takes place over a 24-hour period, from the after-hours discovery of the math error, through the night as one higher-up after another gets pulled into the office to learn about the problem. It goes through the following workday, when these characters carry out a plan to fuck over every other investment bank to minimize the damage to their own; if Chandor hadn’t already failed to elicit sympathy for these characters, this montage would have obliterated it. It’s the “O Captain, my Captain!” moment in Dead Poet’s Society: how can we be happy that the kids learned so much from Robin Williams after every single one of them fucked him over and got him fired?

So, then, what’s the point? Margin Call has a scene in which a tough-as-nails, female executive, Sarah (Demi Moore), sits alone in her office and tries to break down but finds herself too numb to cry. (And anyone thinking of Lindsay Bluth won’t be able to stop laughing at this clichéd attempt at pathos—are there any career women in the movies who aren’t emotionally stunted husks trying to make it in a man’s world?) Another scene finds a young trader, Seth (Penn Badgley), bawling when he finds out what has happened. But these characters are about as ethically challenged as one can get. They don’t shed tears for a career made by fucking over as many people as possible, including their own clients; they’re upset because of the future implications of their careers, and how much money they personally stand to lose from a collapse. Virtually every character in this script has no real desires or goals other than to wriggle out of a mess they all made. But, just like Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and The Company Men, none of them are people—they’re all just archetypal chess pieces pushed around a board constructed of tedious dialogue and redundant scenes.

The setting and what little storyline is present creates a perfect opportunity for Chandor to go beyond what we see in the media—evil, greedy bankers with no interests beyond money and the job—but the script ends up falling into that exact same trap. With the exception of Sam’s (Kevin Spacey) cloyingly symbolic dog and Peter’s (Zachary Quinto) background as a mathematician, Chandor reveals nothing about these characters beyond their greed and their commitment to their jobs. Remember Barry Pepper in The 25th Hour? A single, very brief montage provides a glimpse into his day-to-day as a trader—he snorts a bump and then gets a little too energetic, a little too aggressive, and (most likely) a little too reckless. That montage lasts maybe 15 seconds, at most, but it tells us much more about his character than a 92-page screenplay tells us about anyone in Margin Call. He makes a ton of money, but the job isn’t his life; it’s the source of his income, and after work, he has real friends, real problems, and a real life happening around the job. How would that character have handled the events that unfold in this story? As usual, I’d rather find that out than endure more of Margin Call.

Peter, the ostensible protagonist—but only because he figures out the problem and spends more time explaining it redundantly to others—and Sam, a pseudo-mentor., are really the only characters who have anything resembling ethics. They share a scene, just before the trading floor opens and they enact their plan to fuck over the other banks before their own error is discovered, in which they essentially acknowledge that they know what they’re about to do is wrong, but they go ahead and do it, anyway. To what end? Like everything else in the script, it doesn’t really matter. Even with this scene shoehorned into the script, these characters—like everyone else—remain enigmas.

It’s ambitious, but it remains as much a failure as the other recent financial-crisis films. The fact that Chandor lucked into a stellar cast won’t help anything without serious work on the script. Maybe he’ll pull off a series of changes to dramatically improve everything, the way Drive did, but somehow I doubt it.

Father of Invention by Jonathan D. Krane and Trent Cooper

I can’t deny passing on this script, but you have to understand that my job, at this time, was not about whether or not a script was any good; it had much more to do with its likelihood of making money. And this, frankly, did not seem like a script that would earn much. It has a lot going for it, but the problems cling to the good stuff and threaten to drag it down. Based on the early reviews—At the Movies was unusually brutal, and as of this writing, it holds a 0% on Rotten Tomatoes (with only ten reviews counted, but still—not one of the ten is positive)—these problems did, indeed, drag it down.

The core of the story focuses on two properly enmeshed elements; the arguable A story follows Robert Axle (Kevin Spacey), a disgraced infomercial guru (think Ron Popeil) who struggles to restore his good name after serving time for designing a seriously flawed product that left thousands of people missing fingers. He’s gone from a multimillionaire to a total loser, but the script makes the point that he’s not a bad guy. A liar, a huckster, irresponsible—sure. But his heart was in the right place.

You might be thinking, “There’s no possible way that can work,” but to my eternal shock, it does. Axle is a character of worthwhile complexity, and that’s only enhanced by the B story, which revolves around his attempts to reconnect to his daughter, Claire (Camilla Belle). Not surprisingly, she feels betrayed and abandoned by her father, and he wants to win her love back in much the same way he wants to win back the hearts of the American people. But the script does one thing most scripts don’t—it doesn’t allow Claire to thoroughly hate Axle. His attempts to ingratiate himself are actually semi-successful; it’s only when complications ensue later in the script that Claire loses her faith in him again.

So what’s the problem here? We have an A story and a B story that are, as I described them in my coverage, “rock-solid.” I’ll tell you where it all goes wrong: with the writers’ obsession with making each supporting player essential to the story. They strand characters like Axle’s ex-wife and Claire’s roommates in subplots that never amount to much, even when the two central characters are involved. It’s needless padding, which is hugely disappointing because the material with Axle and Claire works so well. One could make argument that a script in need of so much padding does not tell a feature-length story. Maybe so, but Father of Invention could have easily expanded its two main storylines and made a more satisfying script. It’s not that their story is thin, or that it’s perfect—it’s just solid, and more of it would not ruin anything.

The problem here is that Jonathan D. Krane and Trent Cooper seem to labor under the delusion that characters operate on the same principle as Chekhov’s gun. That’s a noble delusion, because they want Claire’s roommates to function as more than an angel and devil on her shoulders, and they want Axle’s manager at a Walmart-like big-box store to have more depth than the Snidely Whiplash-like villain he could have easily been. Despite their intentions, these characters outlive their usefulness and don’t exit when they ought to; Axle’s boss doesn’t serve any purpose in the story after he fires Axle, but he hangs around until the end, without serving a comedic or narrative purpose.

Nevertheless, I liked Father of Invention. Despite the reviews of the finished film, I’ll boldly declare that I liked it a lot, despite the problems. It disappoints me to hear that the film doesn’t live up to its script, but should I expect anything more from the director of Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector* and the producer of C.H.U.D. II: Bud the Chud? Frankly: yes, I should. People do terrible things for money and experience all the time. If they can write something this decent, it’s very disappointing that they can’t bring it to the screen with the same quality. But what do I know? I haven’t even seen it.


For Wednesday: “Sync Shoot” (7/24/03)—In which the Production II class bands together to shoot a scene using a fancy Arriflex camera and a Nagra sync recorder.

For Friday: “Torture Porn” (12/1/08)—In which I rail against an awful script called Wichita, eventually released in a vastly different form as Mother’s Day, a remake of a schlocky film from 1980. (The script I read, even though it has Mother’s Day as an alternate title, has nothing to do with the original film.) ScriptShadow liked this one, too. Ugh. Yeah, I’m jealous. People actually read his shitty blog.

*Note: I haven’t seen Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector, so for all I know, it’s a shockingly well-made Larry the Cable Guy vehicle. I have my doubts, however.

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