Nicholas Jarecki’s “Arbitrage” updates us: He — with a name change to Robert Miller but clearly the same man — is now a corrupt Wall Street businessman who’s a compulsive adulterer and moral coward.
Jarecki may not have intended his movie to catch up with Lewis as he turns 60. But by casting Gere and mimicking the negotiation scene between Gere and Julia Roberts, almost word for word, in a deal Miller makes with a corporate CEO eager to take over Gere’s company, he certainly is not unaware of the possibility.
Which creates something of a protagonist problem for Jarecki. Lewis may have been a cutthroat businessman in “Pretty Woman,” but he possessed that Gere charm and easy sexuality that made women, and men, approve of his reluctant white knight.
At 60 though, Lewis — or rather Miller — still looks great but has become a monster.
Jarecki presents him initially as a suave businessman with all the toys — Manhattan townhouse, corporate jet, beautiful wife and loving family. Then the writer-director immediately starts tearing Miller down.
Miller is certain to be indicted for fraud unless he sells his company right away. Only the buyer is stalling. He’s cheating on his wife (Susan Sarandon) with a French artist (Laetitia Casta) and lying to his daughter (Brit Marling), who works for his company.
Jarecki takes a page out of Tom Wolfe’s Wall Street novel “The Bonfire of the Vanities” by putting the businessman and his mistress in a car accident that the businessman tries to cover up.
Nothing wrong with anti-heroes in literature or film, but Miller occupies such low moral ground that you can’t empathize with him in the slightest. Then a police detective played by Tim Roth turns up.
The cop really wants to nail this big-shot, which Miller certainly deserves, but the detective goes about it in such a sleazy and underhanded way that you don’t like him either.
You do like Marling’s character and certainly sympathize with Sarandon’s, who no doubt sticks with her philandering husband for the family’s sake. But these are really secondary characters whose purpose is to remind Miller that he once had principles. What happened to them?
The movie never gets around to examining this. It’s first a Wall Street story, then takes a sharp turn into a crime melodrama but never really becomes the character drama it should be.
Who is Robert Miller and why should you care about him? Damned if I know.
The actors are all extremely good as you’d expect. Brit Marling especially stands out. You’ll recall she is the young actress/filmmaker who took the 2011 Sundance Film Festival by storm with two films she wrote and starred in, “Another Earth” and “Sound of My Voice.”
She has an amazing showdown with her father when she learns of his betrayal that makes you realize how much Jarecki needed to expand this character if he were to have a fully fleshed-out drama. Unfortunately, he didn’t.
He spends most of the time digging a bigger and bigger ditch for his protagonist and not enough with the people Miller is pulling down with him. With deeper portraits of Marling’s daughter and perhaps even Casta’s mistress the movie might have shed light on this guy Robert Miller.
As it is, the most interesting character in the film is a young black man, Jimmy Grant, played by Nate Parker. Unwittingly, Miller places Jimmy in a morally precarious position by making him an accessory to his crime but failing to provide a safety net.
Under pressure from the cop, Jimmy is faced with serious criminal charges unless he snitches, which is not something one does growing up in Harlem. His dilemma is much more interesting than Miller’s since Miller always has a way out — honesty — which never interests him.
“Arbitrage” switches genres mid-movie and pulls you every which way dramatically but never connects you to any emotions that matter. The actors must stay close to the surface without much subtext or subtlety since Jarecki never supplies any.
All you get is the slippery slope Gere’s character has ridden since he was a young turk 22 years ago.
Opens: September 14, 2012 (Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions)
Production companies: Green Rooms Films and Treehouse Pictures present a co-production of Parlay Films/LB Productions/Artina Films in association with Alvernia Studios, Lucky Monkey Pictures
Cast: Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Tim Roth, Brit Marling, Laetitia Casta, Nate Parker, Graydon Carter
Director/screenwriter: Nicholas Jarecki
Producers: Laura Bickford, Kevin Turen, Justin Nappi, Robert Salerno,
Executive producers: Brian Young, Mohammed Al Turki, Lisa Wilson, Stanislaw Tyczynski, Ronald Curtis
Director of photography: Yorick Le Saux
Production designer: Beth Mickle
Music: Cliff Martinez
Costume designer: Joe Aulisi
Editor: Douglas Crise
R rating, 107 minutes