I may be wrong but I think that financial thrillers are a recent genre.  Off the top of my head, I can’t think of one before Wall Street.  The films that followed the Great Depression certainly had financial elements but the main thrust of the plot was always something else: comedy in the case of My Man Godfrey or social commentary in The Grapes of Wrath to name two examples.  But there are no films made before 1987, the year Wall Street was made, where high level financial shenanigans were the prime movers of the plot.

Last year there was a great one called Margin Call which was loosely based on the 2008 stock market collapse.  Not only is it a well-acted and directed film, it’s also an example of a film which should not have worked but did.  If you haven’t seen it, do so as quickly as humanly possible.

Arbitrage is loosely based on the Bernie Madoff case.  Richard Gere plays Robert Miller the charismatic head of a hedge fund company.  He’s the kind of guy who gets his picture on the cover of Forbes and gets the softball treatment in interviews on CNBC.  He also has a talent for complicating his life.  Some time ago he sank 410 million dollars into a copper mine in Russia.  The deal went sour and now he can’t get the investment back.  To cover it up he borrows the money from an associate to fill the hole created by the loss until Miller can sell the company.  But the corporation he wants to sell it to is getting suspicious.

At the same time, he takes his mistress, Julie Cote, played by Laetitia Casta for a late night drive up to his lake house.  He falls asleep at the wheel and flips the car, killing her.  Since the scandal might further imperil the deal, he tries to cover up this situation as well.  The two situations are starting to spin out of control.

Richard Gere is pretty good at playing a high stakes smoothie.  There are two contradictory sides to this character.  One is a genuinely nice guy, a decent if not great father and husband, despite his philandering.  He’s also a good boss and for the most part honest.  The other is the ruthless business man who is willing to do anything to make sure his latest deal goes through.  There are a couple of scenes where he shows the pressure getting to him.  It is a nuanced performance that is nonetheless within Gere’s range and he nails it.

The pace of the film flags in the last third as if Nicholas Jarecki, the director and writer ran out of twists at the end.  I think the main problem is that the twists didn’t really build to a big enough climax.  The first two thirds are terrific, however, with good dialog and direction.  This is Jarecki’s first feature film so perhaps he will learn these lessons.

The main problem for me was theme.  Miller has convinced himself that he is trying to avoid accountability for his action because of the innocent investors that will be hurt if this deal falls through.  He is in other words, too big to fail.  There is nothing in the script that really rebuts this.  Now maybe this is an indictment of an American system that allows companies to grow so big that their failure will harm thousands of innocent people, but if it is that point is not driven home.

I can imagine members of the one percent watching this movie and thinking that Robert Miller is a hero.


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