Sorry to Burst Your Bubble

In looking at the upcoming movie calendar, I find myself torn about Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street. Scorsese is rightly considered one of the all-stars of filmmaking, but I confess that I sometimes find his more recent movies to be homework. It's not that I dislike The Aviator or Hugo, but I did find them to be kind of bloated, and frankly, over-praised. Still, the premise of a wealthy stockbroker's implosion does appeal to me. No matter what I decide about that film, thinking about it made me realize that I had a couple of other financial-based dramas sticking around my Netflix queue.

Much like what happened with Pina vs. Girl Walk//All Day when I watched them in rapid succession, I couldn't help but compare and contrast 2011's Margin Call with last year's Arbitrage the same way.

Margin Call puts a thin, fictional shell around the real life events surrounding the housing market bubble burst and resulting financial crisis of 2008. Zachary Quinto plays a risk assessor at a large financial firm who realizes what is about to happen to the market. When he informs the company's higher-ups, a scramble to escape with jobs and reputations intact begins immediately. Far from portraying Wall Street fat-cats as straight-up villains, writer/director J.C. Chandor does a terrific job at showing the shades of gray in the market collapse. There's plenty of blame to spread around, after all. Still, the characters who work at the firm are not let off the hook, as they dispassionately end careers with a handful of keystrokes. You'd think a movie made up of nothing but tense conversations would be a chore, but Margin Call is pretty gripping from beginning to end, even though the audience is well-aware of where events must lead.

Soon after I finished Margin Call, I tackled Arbitrage, for which Richard Gere earned raves for his performance as Robert Miller, a hedge fund manager in the mold of Bernie Madoff. Miller is a charmer who is able to bend pretty much anyone to his will, be it his clients, his employees, or his demanding mistress. He's got a lot of plates to spin, and when he's in a car accident that causes his mistress' death, everything begins to crash around him. His attempts to cover both the accident and his financial schemes become increasingly desperate as the net tightens around him, but he does his best to paste it over with the slick charm and glib assurances he's always employed to get his way.

If I had watched Arbitrage in a vacuum, who knows how I would have felt about it? Coming on the heels of Margin Call, though, it gravely suffers in comparison. Miller becomes hysterical whenever he feels threatened, and I began to wonder how this person built a fortune based on a wildly shifting market, since he responds to every obstacle with willful blindness and shallow glad-handing. Several characters agree to his requests and demands based on nothing more than him basically saying "C' me!" a dozen times. There are plenty of good stories about the destruction of a financial charlatan and his loved ones - we had a great one just this year - so why did the plotlines in Arbitrage have to be so contrived? Were vehicular manslaughter and police corruption really necessary?

Both of these movies want to make points about the vast class divide in America. In Margin Call, two company executives who have been sworn to secrecy about the firm's plans casually discuss their strategy in an elevator, literally across the head of a cleaning woman who is in there with them. It's not that they haven't taken their pledge of secrecy seriously; to these Wall Street bigwigs, the custodian doesn't even register as a person. It's a subtle and very discomforting reminder about the income gap disparity in this country. In Arbitrage, that point is made by a working-class black character who announces that he's being forced into a bad position because he is a working-class black character. Thanks for explicitly explaining that, sir. I am, after all, dumb. No wonder I'm one of the have-nots.

Margin Call: A-
Arbitrage: C


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