Ahhh, it's been too long since I watched a really good movie. This got good reviews when it was out, and a friend who saw it said it was good, but still, one feels like it's a story we already know. It ends on the morn of the mortgage meltdown, and going in, we know how it ends, which I think diminishes interest in this before it even begins. So it's a pleasant surprise to see that it finds ways to make it all fascinating and even gripping by diving deep into the psychological and moral choices its characters face. And it doesn't hurt to have an all-star cast facing them.
We are at some financial firm, which we are to understand is Lehmann Brothers. This was all shot in and around a building near where I used to live, so it was interesting to see all those locations on film. We open with a team coming in to conduct a mass firing, and Stanley Tucci is among the chopped. I didn't catch all the character's names, so we're just going to use the actor's names. You understand. Tucci is fired after 19 years with the firm, and his phone and email are cut off at the meeting. They push a brochure at him with a picture of a sailboat and the title "Looking Ahead." He tries to tell them that, work wise, he's in the middle of something really big, and is met, from several different people, with "we appreciate your concern." Zachary Quinto was on his team, and when saying goodbye, Tucci gives him a thumb drive of what he's been working on. He says "Look at it... and be careful."
Kevin Spacey as the head of their division comes in and gives the remaining staff a pep talk, saying this stuff happens all the time, and that now, with less competition, "this is your opportunity." Quinto stays late and looks at Tucci's files. He calls his boss, Paul Bettany, who is out drinking after work, and tells him to come back in. Bettany sees the files and begins to shit a brick. He calls Spacey and tells him to come back in. Spacey comes in. He shits a brick. He calls his boss, Simon Baker. Baker shits a brick. They call in Baker's equal, Demi Moore, and then über-overlord, Jeremy Irons. In here Spacey has had to go home and have his dog put to sleep, and it turns out later that the scene of him mournfully hugging his ailing dog is character shorthand for: sensitive, moral guy. Also in here Bettany goes to the roof and makes as though he might jump off, and is only half kidding.
Jeremy Irons arrives. He is in top-notch form as the dried-out, skeletal, amoral husk of evil, to the extent that I wondered whether they had actually darkened his teeth for this role. He looks like a dirty ashtray wearing a business suit. He also has his whole "I'm just a friendly guy" persona down, which makes him even more frightening. They're all assembled in a big meeting, and Quinto delivers a summary explaining why bricks are being multiply shat. In the very near future, like starting tomorrow, the amount the firm has extended in shaky loans will be greater than the full value of the company, and they will be sunk.
Irons thinks about it, and says that the thing to do is call all the brokers in early and sell everything before the buyers realize that what they're getting is worthless. Spacey protests--their entire business is built on trust, and their advice on what is valuable to buy. If they do this, "no one will ever trust us again," and their business will be sunk. But, Irons says, their business IS sunk, it is over, and it's time to get as much cash as possible and flee the burning ship.
So this is where the movie gets really interesting, because it starts to focus on the personalities and how they each respond to the moral crisis. The movie has a great many characters, and it does a good job in the first half of setting them up and showing us their hierarchy, which will all play out in the second half. They also do a good job of explaining what is happening here so that the financially uninitiated (like myself) can understand what is happening. The main conflict comes between Irons and Spacey, since Spacey has a conscience and doesn't agree with the sell-off, whereas Irons wants him 100% on board because he's going to have to sell the idea to their brokers in the morning. Irons says this is just the start of the economic meltdown and Spacey replies "It's the start because you started it," but Irons doesn't think it's a bad thing to "be first out the door" of a burning building.
By now it's apparent that most of the people involved can expect to lose their jobs. They start angling and aligning in order to save themselves, especially Baker and Moore, who realize that only one of them will make it, and the one who "makes it" may not, shall we say, be in the company they respect with co-workers they admire. Both Irons and Baker have separate scenes with Moore and--did you ever think the day would come when you would see fierce intelligence in Demi Moore's eyes? That day is here. The other thing this movie makes absolutely clear is that I must make love to Zachary Quinto. Not only is he dreamy, not only do I love his take on Spock, but (like with Spock) his acting conveys a real intelligence and his eyes are always moving around, thinking and taking things in. And he proves excellent at creating a tone and atmosphere around himself. It was nice to see him in another role and I wish we were seeing more of him.
SPOILERS > > >
So in the morning Spacey has to go in and tell all their brokers what is going on. What it means to the brokers is that they will be out of a job, and furthermore will never get a job in that field again, because what they're about to do is so anathema to the position. But, if they sell 93%, they'll get a huge bonus. He tells them that the first 90 minutes are going to be crucial, before the word gets out. We then follow Bettany's calls throughout the day and hear the tone changing by 3pm as people realize they've been sold worthless goods. At the end, Spacey, who was hoping to be fired, realizes he won't be, and goes to confront Irons, who is enjoying a nice meal in some executive lounge. He says he won't let Spacey go for another two years. The scene is as well-written as everything else here as Spacey mentions the effect this will have on people nationwide who will be financially ruined, and Irons replies "It's just money... pieces of paper with pictures on it so we can get something to eat," he says, gesturing to his gourmet meal he is eating in the executive lounge. I wish the movie would have ended here, with Irons doing his crossword puzzle as the world burns, but there is another scene at the very end with Spacey being an emotionally-devastated softie.
< < < SPOILERS END
So good. I wish I could somehow force more people to watch it. It is very smart, demanding your intelligence rather than insulting it, and impeccably well-written. This is really a case of a writer (that is your director, J.C. Chandor) looking at material and understanding precisely how to dramatize it to bring out the issues and provide excellent and meaningful interactions for his actors. Apparently his father was a trust fund manager or some shit. Then you have such excellent actors, to the point where you start to get excited FOR THEM, like "Zachary Quinto gets to act opposite Jeremy Irons! Kevin Spacey is getting a really good, juicy role!" stuff like that. And, in all this, it manages to have a visual sense and make a strength out of taking place in one small area. Total winner, you should watch it.
Yes! It's much better than you might expect.