“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.” From Citizen Kane to Margin Call, American films have mined this fertile gulf for drama. The latest to do so is Arbitrage, the story of a Wall Street player who plays himself into a corner.
Telling us about the very rich this time is 33-year-old writer-director Nicholas Jarecki, younger brother of filmmakers Andrew Jarecki (Capturing the Friedmans) and part-time Vermonter Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight). He’s uniquely suited to the project, not only because moviemaking runs in his family, but because of his exposure from an early age to the world of high finance. Both of Jarecki’s parents were commodities traders.
Around the time Lehman Brothers was imploding, it occurred to Jarecki there might be a movie in there somewhere. Further inspiration came from a series in Vanity Fair on the financial crisies entitled “The Great Hangover.” The result is a debut feature that’s generated awards buzz since its premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
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. Robert — who made a bad bet on a copper mine and nearly went bankrupt — is 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. He needs the deal to go through in a hurry, though the viewer has to wonder which worries him more: doing time for fraud or the prospect of colleagues finding out he’s fallible.
The second secret is that Robert 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 Robert and total ruin is the young black man (Nate Parker) he phoned after the accident. 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 Robert, “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 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 have been wise to keep the focus on Robert’s illicit manipulation of funds and explore the pathology that permits a human being to put at risk not just his own future but that of family members 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 rein 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.