By Benjamin Mercer
Dir. Nicholas Jarecki, U.S., Roadside Attractions
In Arbitrage, Nicholas Jarecki’s appealingly sleek feature debut, Richard Gere stars as Robert Miller, a suave hedge-fund titan referred to as “the Oracle of Gracie Square.” Leaving very little to the imagination, this nickname, repeated a couple of times throughout the film, invokes not one but two famous real-life billionaires: both Warren Buffett, the “Oracle of Omaha” himself, and New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, currently cooling his heels for a third term on the grounds of Gracie Mansion. In the film’s opening scene, an admiring interviewer informs us that Miller had the foresight to bet on the housing crisis—along the lines of one of Michael Lewis’s big-shorters, perhaps, though likely better capitalized than any of them. And like Bernie Madoff, Miller runs something of a top-of-the-line family business—his protégé is his daughter Brooke, incongruously played by Brit Marling as simultaneously wispy and razor-sharp, while even his fuck-up son retains an office at the firm—one that presents a consistently profitable front to the world, while in actuality teetering on the brink of collapse.
It turns out that Jarecki’s amalgam of Miller’s real-world counterparts is more of a bid to scramble audience sympathies (by now, Buffett and Madoff couldn’t have more divergent public profiles) than a rather crude entrée to financial-crisis commentary. Gradually, the smoothly told legal thriller reveals that the whole of Miller’s reputation is at stake, showing the imperatives of self-preservation that ratchet up with the accumulation of wealth, allowing for a distortion of other existing priorities. The ostensible sage—embodied by Gere with a show-runner’s cool control of the room that’s alternately seductive and slippery (and increasingly unstable, though he still rallies for the occasional persuasive speech)—had a while back ordered his company’s books to be cooked; meant to be a temporary fix, the fraud has nearly gotten out of his control, but he’s working valiantly to hide it as his trading empire gets audited ahead of a potential sale.
The problems get personal as well, though the protagonist also sees these as inseparable from his business concerns—one of writer-director Jarecki’s strengths here is in developing a sickening sense of inextricability, even if the component parts of his scenario wind up clicking into place a little too neatly. Early in the film, Miller totals his car outside the city with his mistress, the younger French artist Julie (Laetitia Casta), asleep on the passenger side. He survives the wreck; she doesn’t. Miller goes into immediate damage-control mode. Getting caught would mean considerable jail time for vehicular manslaughter, as well as the attendant public shame, but more important, in his thinking, is the fact that it might jeopardize his pending sale, which would in turn mean losing everything he’d worked for—and a whole lot of other people’s money besides. (Miller frequently spins this last fact as a unique responsibility of his, an ostensibly nobler reason for his refusal to sacrifice his good standing by simply admitting the truth.) After the accident, he escapes to a payphone and puts in a no-questions-asked favor to his former driver’s son, Jimmy Grant (Nate Parker), a man from Harlem who has had legal troubles of his own. A diminutive, comically slinky detective (Tim Roth) soon begins pestering Jimmy, in the hopes of bringing down Miller, putting the young man’s loyalty to the test. A rather nasty game is put into motion, with unsavory tactics employed on every side (save for Jimmy’s).
In its canvassing of old-money interiors, Midtown’s chrome cast, and the bedraggled functionality of the judicial system, Arbitrage taps into a Michael Clayton vibe that, in the context of last month’s Manhattan-set releases, feels comfortably classical. The island has lately appeared on-screen as both a mapping-app obstacle course (Premium Rush) and a holograph resembling a low-rent Me Decade vision of the future (Cosmopolis)—the gridlocked streets made over into a touch-screen interface of themselves by the traffic of capital either illicit or virtual. Still a financial proving ground in Arbitrage, Manhattan materializes as a place where the most important transactions continue to be accomplished face to face, a city whose physical presence is high-sheen but still very concrete—nicely bringing back down to earth an economic system that’s often imagined as too abstract to fathom (see the deliberately vacant catastrophe of last year’s Margin Call, an Oscar nominee for best original screenplay). Arbitrage is often shot as if it were carefully taking stock of the surroundings’ luxury, slowly panning up lavish staircases and frigidly magnificent skyscrapers, and gliding along various glass-encased lobby spaces.
The reliably handsome look belies some of the deceptively complicated dynamics at work here. Jarecki draws suspense from some unexpected sources, refusing to demonize his convenient-villain protagonist once and for all, after setting him up as equal parts guru and swindler. Jarecki draws nearly perverse thrills from Gere’s high-wire one-on-ones with law enforcement, and his go-for-broke negotiations with the company that’s looking to acquire his (Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, with his regal barely-there blowout, appears in a late lunch scene at Le Cirque as the elusive prospective buyer). The filmmaker also takes our sympathies fairly far in the other direction, if a little less assuredly, as in a particularly cheap scene in which it becomes clear that Miller—to whom Jimmy is detailing his escape plan of moving to Virginia and opening an Applebee’s franchise—has never heard of the chain before. (Wouldn’t a successful businessman be apprised of a successful business, no matter how rarefied the air he breathes?)
By making it near-irresistible to root for Miller in select pockets of the narrative, while otherwise frequently accommodating a broader perspective that’s less flattering to him, Jarecki forces viewers to confront their own conflicted attitude toward his protagonist—a character who does wind up popping to life, despite his obviously schematic, billionaire-composite conception. There are those who will see in all this a vaguely conservative agenda, but overall it seems to be a net gain, however small, for our on-screen digestion of the current moment Here, we’re presented with a fat cat whose motives appear to be nearly as complex as the transactions and instruments from which he’s profited so tremendously.