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Review: Slick ‘Arbitrage’ Trades on Bad Morals and Bad Money

By  · Published on September 13th, 2012

Editor’s note: With Arbitrage hitting theaters this week, here is a re-run (totally free! no financial risks to you!) of our Sundance review, originally posted on January 22, 2012.

Last year’s Sundance Film Festival featured a break-out hit with J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call, a taut and talky tale of investment bankers trying to chuck bad money and bad books in the early days of the financial crisis. Chandor’s film cleaned up nicely on the awards circuit, and it’s surely paved the way for screenwriter and documentarian Nicholas Jarecki’s feature film debut, a sexier sister to Margin Call.

Arbitrage brings out the big guns to tell its twisted story – starring Richard Gere as hedge fund magnate Robert Miller attempting to sell his family business, with Susan Sarandon as his charitable wife Ellen, Brit Marling as smarty-pants daughter Brooke, and the ever-solid Tim Roth as a police detective steadily cracking open their rarefied lives. Here, Jarecki has crafted great atmosphere – we understand the Millers’ lifestyle and relationships within mere minutes, and the film holds that tone and that feel throughout its perhaps slightly-too-long runtime. Arbitrage is slick and watchable, well-made and with some nice surprises, but it’s void of any sense of humanity, and seeing rich people doing bad stuff doesn’t amount to stick-to-your-ribs cinema.

The film plods along interestingly enough for its first act, masquerading as a financial drama with domestic undertones before an accident (striking and dramatic enough to be viewed as a twist) turns the entire film (and all of its characters) squarely on their heads. It’s a bold bait-and-switch, and Jarecki makes it mostly work, adding intrigue and drama to a plot that was previously going a bit stale.

Robert has enough at stake anyway – his company books are, well, just not quite right, and he’s scrambling to make things look copacetic to ensure that the company’s sale will go through. The “twist” adds a similar level of drama to his personal life, leaving Robert both desperate and ever-devious. Gere is good here, Sarandon is solid, and Marling works up to a smart performance despite not being given nearly enough to work with, but it’s hard to ever feel for any of the Millers, so the stakes of Arbitrage never feel quite high enough, no matter how good it all looks. Of note, as Robert’s mistress, temperamental artist Julie, Laetitia Casta turns in one of the few false performances in the entire production. She’s distractingly bad, and unable to lift an already thinly drawn character to any sort of believable dramatic levels.

Arbitrage is a slick, atmospheric, and polished thriller that features some solid performance work and a nice end-of-act-one “twist” that refocuses the action in an intriguing and sustainable way, but it’s devoid of human emotion even when it’s telling very human stories (or at least when it focuses on very human mistakes). The film hinges on the tension of the possible fall-out from Robert’s copious mistakes, but even Gere makes it impossible to care about his character as a human being, and we learn too little about the rest of the Miller clan to care about their lives either.

The Upside: Slick, well-made, and atmospheric; features a number of good to great performances; shows Jarecki’s high potential to make still better “domestic” thrillers.

The Downside: Arbitrage is filled with bad people doing bad things, and it’s engaging precisely in the same that way gossip magazines are.

On the Side: Fun fact! Marling worked in the financial sector before she hit it big with last year’s Sundance selections.

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