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September 16, 2012

We do love ourselves a tale of financial-market shenanigans, don’t we? Just in the past month we’ve had $upercapitalist and Cosmopolis, though the latter was less directly concerned with the present-day state of affairs. Before that we had Margin Call, The Company Men, and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. And now Nicholas Jarecki presents us with Arbitrage. The catch with jumping right into the middle of a burgeoning subgenre is that if you’re not going to stand out by being first, you really have to stand out by being best, and this movie doesn’t quite get there. It’s got the makings of a decent crime thriller with some great performances from a talented cast, but the story spins out of control, whipsawing back and forth as it nears the finish line.

Robert Miller (Richard Gere) heads a successful investment company as he passes his sixtieth birthday. He wants to sell it, though, to spend more time with his wife, Ellen (Susan Sarandon), children — including his daughter and chief investment officer, Brooke (Brit Marling) — and grandchildren. He’s also motivated to sell because a deal went sideways on him, leaving him half a billion dollars in the hole. He has the gap plugged for the duration of an audit by way of some juggled books and a loan from a friend, but the friend is getting anxious to have his money back and the buyer is stalling.

Things go from bad to worse, as they do. Robert tries to placate his mistress (Laetitia Casta) with a trip out to a country home in Connecticut, but falls asleep at the wheel, rolling her car and killing her in the process. As the publicity from a case of involuntary manslaughter could well spoil the deal, he puts as much distance as possible between himself and her death; he calls Jimmy Grant (Nate Parker), the son of his former driver, to pick him up and drive him back to Manhattan and hopes it will all go away.

Unfortunately Detective Michael Bryer (Tim Roth) catches the case, and he quickly starts putting the pieces together. Worse, he seems to have a grudge against captains of finance getting away with things — a grudge which some back-story could have filled in nicely — and he’s determined to make the connection stick by whatever means necessary.

The performances are solid; Gere is at the top of his game, playing one of his best characters in years. Roth — his not-quite-there American accent notwithstanding — nails the smart, sly detective character. Of course, I was intently watching Marling’s supporting role — by far her biggest-profile part after starting out in Another Earth and Sound of My Voice — and she did not disappoint. With half the age and a fraction of the experience of either Gere or Sarandon, she goes toe-to-toe with both and easily holds her own.

And Jarecki isn’t a bad director, either. He’s got a solid, steady eye and presents some wonderful compositions. Just watch, for instance, the trees in the background of Robert and Brooke’s confrontation in Central Park. It doesn’t hurt that, like most films about wealthy people in trouble, the scenes and characters are decorated luxuriously.

But there’s too much going on at once with little connection between the storylines. The financial dogfight between Miller and his buyer could support a story on its own, as could the Bryer’s attempts to squeeze information out of Grant. But the two don’t interact in any really significant way, allowing Miller to handle them all but separately. Throw in another conflict that basically materializes in the middle of the third act and it seems like Jarecki just didn’t know how to end the story and kept going until he could paint himself out of one corner or another.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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