“Let me tell you about the very rich,” F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, little suspecting he was paving the way for a movie genre. “They are different from you and me.” And, from Citizen Kane to Margin Call, American films have plumbed drama from this fertile gulf. The latest to do so is Arbitrage, the story of a Wall Street player who paints himself into an existential corner.
Telling us about the very rich this time around is 33 year old writer-director Nicholas Jarecki, younger brother of filmmakers Andrew Jarecki (Capturing the Friedmans) and Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight). He’s uniquely suited to the project, not only because moviemaking runs in his family, but due to his exposure from an early age to the world of high finance. Both his parents were commodities traders.
Around the time Lehman Brothers was imploding it occurred to Jarecki there might well be a movie in there somewhere. Further inspiration came later from a series on the financial crises in Vanity Fair entitled “The Great Hangover.” The result is a debut feature that’s generated awards buzz since its premiere at this year’s Sundance.
The role of Lehman Brothers is played by the fictional Miller Capital. The part of its high flying founder and all around master of the universe, Robert Miller, is played by Richard Gere. He’s a Madoffian creation, a hedge fund titan with a winning streak so long it’s earned him the nickname “The Oracle.” Like Bernie Madoff, Robert appears to have it all. And, like Madoff, he has a secret.
Well, a couple. The first is that he’s borrowed $400 million from a friend to plug a hole in his company’s cooked books. He’s in the final stages of selling the propped up firm to a rival played by Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter in an all-too-brief cameo. Robert made a bad bet on a copper mine and was nearly bankrupted. He needs the deal to go through in a hurry though the viewer has to wonder which worries him more: the possibility of doing time for fraud or the prospect of colleagues finding out he’s fallible.
The second secret is that he left the scene of a late night crash in which a companion was killed. The police-in the form of a sleazebag detective played by Tim Roth-are closing in and the only thing standing between Miller and total ruin is the young black man (Nate Parker) he phoned after the accident to ask for a hush hush ride home. Jimmy Grant, the son of the late family chauffeur, functions as the picture’s moral compass so we’re expected to find it illuminating when he eventually comes under police suspicion and asks “You think money’s gonna fix this?” and Robert replies “What else is there?”
“What else is there?” is precisely what I found myself asking though after an hour or so of artfully filmed exchanges in private aircraft, sleek corporate offices, gleaming limos, upscale hotels and luxury Manhattan digs. Jarecki gets all the details right. The universe of privilege he creates is never less than convincing. Too bad the same can’t be said for his main character’s machinations.
The young filmmaker took his eye off the ball I think. If he wanted to make a timely morality tale, he might’ve been wise to keep the focus on Miller’s illicit manipulation of funds and explore the pathology which permits a human being to put not just his own future but that of family members at risk in pursuit of financial gain.
Instead Jarecki dilutes his story with familiar melodramatic complications, gives Susan Sarandon far too little to do in the role of Robert’s wife and fails to reign in his leading man when the temptation to overact strikes. Gere’s a compelling screen presence as always but let’s be honest: the guy loves to holler.
The bottom line? The director’s feature debut is handsome and assured with flashes of insight and the pleasures of a decent procedural. Given the brains and talent invested in it, however, Arbitrage should’ve yielded greater dividends.