‘Arbitrage’ is a cool, distant financial drama about a man on the brink
Directed by Nicolas Jarecki
Written by Nicolas Jarecki
USA and Poland, 2012
If Arbitrage has a theme, it’s desperation. The CEO of a trading firm is desperate to remain solvent and not go to jail for the rest of his life for committing massive fraud. A young black man with ties to the CEO is desperate to remain above the law. A dogged NYPD detective is desperate to get justice against the avarice on Wall Street any way he can. It’s not that the frantic reactions these men have aren’t earned within the plot. It’s that the film’s writer-director, Nicholas Jarecki, has very little grasp on how to build or create tension based on this mutual desperation. Thus, Arbitrage is all cool blues, silvers, and whites, a sleekly designed drama on the surface but empty underneath.
Richard Gere, who’s aged gracefully into looking like a J. Crew model in the 50-and-up section, portrays Robert Miller, the CEO of Miller Capital, a company on top of Wall Street. However, Miller’s concerned that the sale of his firm to a rival won’t go through because of some money he moved around—say, oh, $412 million—to make his business look more attractive to buyers. And despite having a devoted wife (Susan Sarandon), Miller’s ensconced in an affair with a French artist (Laetitia Casta). The affair goes up in smoke, literally, after a car crash leaves Miller the sole survivor. Instead of calling in the accident to the police, he flees from the scene with the help of Jimmy (Nate Parker), a young Harlem resident whose father once worked for Miller. Jimmy’s simple favor of driving Miller to his house in the middle of the night spirals out of control once the police investigate the crash.
You might think a film based around this plot—and the previous paragraph only covers the first half-hour of Arbitrage—would be tense and compelling. But Arbitrage isn’t that film. Jarecki’s script deals specifically in single dimensions, never shading in the characters with details. Miller’s dalliance is unsurprising, somewhat because Richard Gere is at his best when he plays the cad. But the further we get into knowing Robert Miller, the more unlikable and unrelatable he becomes, escalating as it becomes clear that he might get away scot free. The movie is sneaky, pretending to build up a financial mogul in our estimation only to destroy him in every way possible, satiating the masses after the Wall Street crash of 2008. We want the mighty to fall, and fall hard. Somehow, Arbitrage sidesteps that, making it so we have to root for Miller to escape jail time for truly heinous acts that he’s almost bragging about having committed.
Part of the film’s problem is Gere, who never fits as, essentially, a scumbag. He looks right for the Gordon Gekko-esque role, but when he opens his mouth, the façade falls apart. What’s more, it’s hard to buy some of his character’s decisions. Why, for example, would you have an affair, when you’re married to the luminous Susan Sarandon? Maybe if Jarecki gave Sarandon’s character more dimensions outside of a few offhand mentions of being involved with charity work, we’d know what made Miller so interested in sleeping around. Similarly, Miller’s relationship with his co-worker/daughter, Brooke (Brit Marling), isn’t very well-defined. She’s got a high position in his company, and clearly earned it, but her innate trust of her father and his business dealings doesn’t jibe with the man we’re introduced to. Sure, he’s her father, but any paternal qualities are overshadowed by his inherent jerkiness. Lastly, Jarecki can’t plausibly reconcile a major fallout of the crash: Miller receives an internal wound that causes him immense pain early on, yet it only recurs when dramatically imperative.
The supporting cast is mostly fine, but as distant as the rest of the film. The only memorable performances come from Parker and Tim Roth, as the detective investigating the car crash. Neither does career-best work; their characters are so far removed from the fancy yet coldly furnished offices of high-rise buildings in the financial sector, so both men bring so much life to their scenes, especially those they share. Parker, as a man whose determination to move away from his criminal past makes him the most moral person in the entire mess, is as close as the film gets to a bundle of raw nerves. Roth, in spite of a poor attempt at a Noo Yawk accent, is fun to watch. No one else gets an opportunity to chew scenery here, so it might as well be him. As strangely accented as he may be, Tim Roth is a cool drink of water in the otherwise arid desert landscape of Arbitrage.
Does Arbitrage want to be an indictment of greed running rampant in the financial world? Does it want to be a hard-hitting, blunt character study? Does it want to be a gritty crime drama? Nicholas Jarecki is probably hoping the film succeeds on all counts, but because of an unfocused, meager script, frequently inexplicable direction (awkward blocking abounds), and a halfhearted series of performances, the movie rarely feels exciting or thrilling. Even if the movie doesn’t want to give its lead character his just desserts, it’d be nice if the damn thing had a heartbeat.
— Josh Spiegel