The meme of the 99 percent versus the 1 percent may wind up outlasting the Occupy movement that gave birth to it. Yet when it comes to dramatizing the financial crisis, American filmmakers continue to find Wall Street sleaze more fascinating than honest poverty. Like J. C. Chandor's Margin Call, Nicholas Jarecki's Arbitrage luxuriates in the architecture of high-end Manhattan even as it assails the culture of corruption that flourishes there.
Its protagonist, Robert Miller (Richard Gere), a billionaire contemplating his 60th birthday, seems to be on top of the world. But he's concealing a great deal from his wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon) and daughter Brooke (Brit Marling), who's also the chief investment officer of his hedge-fund company. From Brooke, he's withholding his risky investment in a Russian copper mine, which could destroy the business. From Ellen, he's hiding his affair with a French art dealer (Laetitia Costa). These sources of potential downfall converge when Miller causes a deadly accident, raising the suspicions of an NYPD detective (Tim Roth, struggling to do a New York accent) who'd love a Wall Street bigshot's scalp on his belt.
Likable characters are few and far between in Arbitrage, Jarecki's first feature after directing the James Toback documentary The Outsider. Even with Gere in fast-on-his-feet heel mode, the completely unsympathetic Miller isn't charismatic or interesting enough to be a satisfying anti-hero. Roth's detective, meanwhile, seems to be using his job to wage class warfare even if it means bending the law. Rather than an avenging angel, he comes across as just another sleazeball. In several key respects, the film hedges its bets toward Miller, whose transgressions are explained away as bad breaks, not intended mischief.
Apart from Brooke, who becomes disillusioned by her father's fraud but has to put on a public face of love and approval — one of many details that evokes the specter of Bernie Madoff — the most appealing person in Arbitrage is Jimmy (Nate Parker), a former employee's son who will regret his decision to help Miller when he gets the call. Clearly, Miller sees him as a "magic Negro" who will drop everything and give him a ride at 2 a.m. with no explanation; when Jimmy obeys, the film itself seems to go along with that assessment. But the magic runs out once the police trace the accident back to Jimmy — who becomes the latest person in Miller's life to face long-term repercussions from the tycoon's short-term actions.
Arbitrage may not look like a TV show — Jarecki wisely chose to shoot it on 35mm, and the cinematography gives the proceedings a high-power gloss — but it sure feels like one, right from the very first scene of Miller being interviewed on TV. At times, the film suggests a synthesis of Law & Order and CNBC's American Greed. (In fact, CNBC is shown onscreen and mentioned by the characters.) But even though Arbitrage winds up seeming awfully familiar, through Jimmy's deepening dilemma it offers insight into something rarely touched on in American cinema: what it's like to be used by the 1 percent.