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, Arbitrage luxuriates in the architecture of high-end Manhattan even as it assails the culture of corruption that flourishes there.
The movie kicks off on the eve of its protagonist’s 60th birthday. Robert Miller (Richard Gere) is a billionaire on top of the world, but he’s about to be pushed toward a downfall on a few fronts. He’s concealing a great deal from his wife, Ellen (Susan Sarandon), and their daughter, Brooke (Brit Marling), who’s also the chief investment officer of his hedge-fund company. There’s his affair with French art dealer Julie (Laetitia Casta), for one thing, and there’s his role in Julie’s death.
Driving with Julie after a gallery opening, Robert dozes off at the wheel and causes an accident that injures him and kills her. He escapes the scene with help from his friend Jimmy (Nate Parker), who takes him home. But the suspicions of NYPD Det. Bryer (Tim Roth, struggling to do a New York accent) have been raised.
Bryer seems to be using his job to wage class warfare, even if it means bending the law. It’s a contrivance designed to make him an avenging angel, but he comes across as just another scumbag. Oddly, that means that the film hedges its bets in Robert’s favor. He may be responsible for a woman’s death, but he’s no deliberate killer.
Nor is he a scheming criminal. Unlike Bernie Madoff, Robert didn’t set out to rip off anyone. His financial undoing — the other element pushing him toward ruin — stems not from calculated fraud but from a risky investment in a Russian copper mine. But Robert’s impulse for concealment shows up here, too. He has attempted to hide the investment’s big losses, making him completely unsympathetic. Yet Arbitrage doesn’t allow him enough charisma to make him a satisfying anti-hero.
The other characters in Arbitrage aren’t much more likable than Robert. Apart from Brooke — disillusioned by her father’s fraud as she puts on a public face of love and approval — Jimmy is the most appealing person here. Robert knows that Jimmy will drop everything and pick him up at 2 a.m., with no explanation. The long-term consequences of Jimmy’s obedience are supposed to lend moral gravity to the story, but Robert’s belief that throwing money at Jimmy, and also hiring a lawyer to defend him, is unrealistically simple-minded.
Arbitrage suffers from the two-dimensional storytelling of an unmemorable TV show, but at least it doesn’t look like one. Wisely, director Nicholas Jarecki chose to shoot his movie on 35 mm film, and the cinematography is attractive. Less wisely, his first scene shows Robert being interviewed on television, and the cable network CNBC is shown onscreen and mentioned by the characters. The limited insights that follow — what it’s like to be used by the 1 percent — end up feeling TV-routine, as easily dismissed as that pesky 99 percent.