As Hollywood’s tackled the recession, it focused first on Ponzi schemers in the mode of Bernie Madoff, villains whose schemes were easy to explain, and whose evil didn’t require a thorough examination of the financial system. Slowly but surely, though, we’re seeing financial crisis movies that are structured like mysteries or heist films, where the action — and heroism — are to be found in understanding precisely what financiers got away with behind our backs and the full extent of the damage they’ve caused us. Half of Arbitrage, the financial thriller that premiered here at Sundance, is that kind of movie.
Arbitrage stars Richard Gere as Robert Miller, a hedge fund titan who is on the verge of selling his firm at a very high price determined by the success of his predictive model. It should be a windfall for his family, including his wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon), a dedicated philanthropist, and his daughter and Chief Investment Officer Brooke (a very good Brit Marling), who would prefer to hang on to the firm given its growth. But it quickly becomes clear that Robert is selling a company that was decimated by a bad bet he made on Russian copper, a giant hole that’s been papered over with a loan from a friend so Robert can pass an audit and offload the company at a price that will let him pay back the debt and make his investors whole.
That ought to be enough for one movie, as it was in J.C. Chandor’s justifiably Oscar-nominated Margin Call. But Arbitrage throws another factor into this deal-making stew, giving Robert a French gallerist as a mistress — and having him kill her when he falls asleep at the wheel as they head out for a lost weekend. Robert flees the scene with the help of Jimmy (Nate Parker, who is having one hell of a beginning of 2012 between this, Red Hook Summer, and Red Tails), the son of his late driver, who comes under the eye of angry working-class detective Michael Bryer (Tim Roth).
The question becomes, then, whether Robert can play the information imbalance — his knowledge about the truth about the state of his fund and his mistress’s death — to his own advantage, or whether Det. Byer and Brooke’s investigations will move fast enough for them to expose him before the deal with an irritatingly elusive mogul (played, in one fun scene, by Graydon Carter, who director Nicholas Jarecki credits with commissioning the financial journalism that inspired the movie) closes. Jarecki makes the mistake, however, of thinking that the murder investigation is more interesting than the financial one. Roth is always fun, and gives Bryer a nice insolence in the face of authority, and there’s some appeal in listening to him rant about how men like Miller “outmanuver us, they outbuy us. I’m fucking sick of it. He did it! He doesn’t get to walk just because he’s on CNBC.” But the far more interesting story is watching Brooke use her considerable intellect to uncover her father’s deception, to reveal that the success she places so much pride in, is a lie. We’ve heard a lot on the campaign trail about Republican candidates who think they deserve their wealth, and there’s something psychologically interesting and necessary to see Brooke come to understand that the growth of the business she believes she helped to create is entirely a fiction. And there’s something particularly nice about a movie where the brilliant, beautiful daughter of a supposedly great man sees him fall, rather than a repeat of the eternal conflict between daughters and sons. “I’m the patriarch. That’s my role. I have to play it,” Robert tells her at some point. Brooke really sees him for the first time, responding, “For a moment there, I thought you were going to say you were sorry.” Sarandon is also wonderful as Ellen, a woman both her husband and her daughter think is nothing greater than the sum of her charity engagements. “And now it’s way too complicated for me to understand?” Ellen asks Brooke when the latter dodges her inquiries about what’s wrong between Brooke and Robert. Great men, the movie suggests, assume pride of place in relation to the women in their lives less out of merit than out of self-confidence.
Speaking of women, the plot about Robert and his mistress might have more heft if it had its own movie, and more space to explore the dynamic between Robert and Jimmy, who Det. Bryer justifiably suggests is being used by Robert because he’s poor, black, and disposable. Watching Gere and Parker navigate that accusation is fascinating, and contains one of the better out-of-touch rich person moments in post-crash cinema. When Jimmy bitterly complains that Robert has ruined his plans to restart his life after a stint in jail, he explains that he and his girlfriend plan to run an Applebee’s in Virginia. “What’s an Applebee’s?” Richard wants to know, baffled that the son of his driver has come up with a plan he can’t comprehend. “It’s a restaurant, a chain restaurant,” Jimmy explains. The question is whether the billionaire can outrace the real world forever.