Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Movie Review: Arbitrage

Directed by: Nicholas Jarecki.
Written by: Nicholas Jarecki.
Starring: Richard Gere (Robert Miller), Susan Sarandon (Ellen Miller), Tim Roth (Det. Michael Bryer), Brit Marling (Brooke Miller), Laetitia Casta (Julie Cote), Nate Parker (Jimmy Grant), Stuart Margolin (Syd Felder), Chris Eigeman (Gavin Briar), Graydon Carter (James Mayfield), Bruce Altman (Chris Vogler), Larry Pine (Jeffrey Greenberg), Curtiss Cook (Det. Mills), Reg E. Cathey (Earl Monroe), Felix Solis (A.D.A. Deferlito), Tibor Feldman (Judge Rittenband).

Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage wants to be an update of Tom Wolfe’s brilliant novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. Both Wolfe’s book and Jarecki’s film are about a “Master of the Universe” on Wall Street, who are in over their heads financially but believe they can get away with anything. Both have at their center men whose success affords them a beautiful, younger mistress, and involve a car accident where someone is killed – and the Master of the Universe thinks he can get away with it. But Jarecki’s film is even more cynical than Wolfe’s novel. Where Wolfe’s character eventually has to face the music, Jarecki’s proves himself right – he really is above the law.

Richard Gere gives a very good performance in Arbitrage as Robert Miller, who runs a successful investing firm worth hundreds of millions of dollars. He keeps his wife, Ellen (Susan Sarandon) in the style in which she is accustomed, loves his grandkids, and seems to be a good father – especially to his prized daughter Brooke (Brit Marling), who is following in his footsteps. He has been a big success on Wall Street – smart enough to avoid collapse when the bottom of the market fell out in 2008. A big bank wants to buy his company – something that will make him even richer than he already is, and will finally let him retire. But Robert has some secrets.

For one thing, he isn’t as smart as he thinks he is – he lost hundreds of millions in a deal on a copper mine in Russia, and has been covering up these losses – with the deposit from a friend who wants his money back. Robert just has to make it until the deal closes, then he can replace the money, and no one will know the difference. He also has a mistress on the side – Julie Cote (Laetitia Casta), a beautiful French woman, who he has set up with an apartment and an art gallery. She, like all mistresses, thinks that eventually Robert will leave his wife for her – and is starting to get antsy and demanding. But all of that pales in comparison to the trouble Robert is about to get into – while driving his mistress, in her car, one night he falls asleep at the wheel and crashes. She’s killed instantly – but rather than call in the accident and face the music, he decides to run for it. He calls a friend – Jimmy Grant (Nate Parker), a young African American son of his former driver, who he helped out. He needs a ride – and he needs no one to know about it. The police, led by Detective Bryer (Tim Roth) aren’t fooled by any of this – but they need proof. And like Robert, Bryer is not above breaking the rules to get it.

Arbitrage flips the idea of a traditional thriller on its head. This is not the story of an innocent man, wrongly accused just trying to prove his innocence. This is the story of a guilty man, rightly accused, trying to cover his tracks. You find yourself cheering for Robert – hoping that he’ll get away with everything, even though you know he’s guilty and he damn well should be punished. This is partly because of Gere, who is so good in the lead role. He looks and acts the part of a Wall Street millionaire – he is affable and charming. And we’re used to liking Richard Gere, so you go with it, even though you know it’s wrong.

But, for me, something is holding Arbitrage back from being a truly good movie. I think writer/director Jarecki’s film is lacking a real sense of urgency – of outrage. Oliver Stone may lay his contempt on Wall Street types a little too thickly in his films on the subject, and goes overboard with the stylistics, but Jarecki has gone too far in the other direction – making a strangely matter of fact film. There is also so little complexity to any of the characters, that even though the entire cast is good – they never truly seem like three dimensional people. The best one if the cast is Roth, who contempt for Gere is palpable, and who doesn’t play his cop as a typical “just the facts, ma’am” movie detective, but something altogether more unique. Nate Parker has some nice moments as well as Jimmy, who wants to do the right thing, but doesn’t know what that is. The rest of the cast is too one note – and I never bought that Marling’s Brooke could be so na├»ve, and you spend the whole movie waiting for Sarandon to do something – which you know she will because why the hell else would you cast an actress like Sarandon in such a seemingly throwaway role?

There is an interesting idea at the heart of Arbitrage – something that should have made a very good movie. And yet Jarecki’s film, in trying to be realistic, sucks the tension out of it. Arbitrage is still an ok film – an engaging one in which I was never bored. But it never grabbed hold of me the way good thrillers do.

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