Movie Review: “Arbitrage” (Nicholas Jarecki, USA 2012)

Much of the publicity related to this film was about the Academy Award chances of star Richard Gere, who had been a significant star for over three decades without getting a nod from the Academy. It was rarely mentioned that the reason he never got a nomination is that he is barely even an actor, let alone a truly good actor, but the few critics who were willing to admit to Gere’s general acting limitations were still impressed with his performance in this film. Those testimonials were enough to make the film vaguely interesting to me, and it got just good enough reviews to be worth watching.

The film tells the story of Richard Miller, who is in every way the cliche rich businessman, complete with cocaine-snorting foreign artist girlfriend and secretly failing business. As with seemingly all such rich men in films, he ends up getting into a car accident with his girlfriend and tries to cover it up, claiming that it is to protect his business interests in order to help everyone connected to the business. He wraps his greed in a cocoon of selflessness that is absolutely the same as what we have seen from countless high-powered business executives throughout cinema.

However, the film’s big problem is that its point seems to be simply depicting this character, who is of course a stand-in for all business. The movie’s point is that big business is made up of a web of lies and deceit, and it really is that facile. It doesn’t try to make any points about the nature of greed, humanity, etc. It doesn’t try to make a more specific point about something in the recent economic and political situation. No, it just says, “Businessmen are selfish liars.” It’s an overdone, dull point that really did not need another film about it.

Jarecki also is so focused on his thriller narrative that he often forgets his point. He falls into the trap of thinking that he’s a storyteller rather than a filmmaker, and it shows in a film that lacks cohesion and quickly grows dull. Further, the narrative on which he focuses is such a trope that every beat of the film is predictable from reading a one-sentence summary. Especially if you’re going to make a thriller, that just doesn’t work.

The acting is essentially the saving grace of the film, as everyone in it is excellent. Richard Gere has always been a limited actor and this film doesn’t really stretch him, but he is still far more natural and believable than he has been in the vast majority of his parts, and does everything the film asks of him quite well. Susan Sarandon has a deceptively complex–albeit small–role as his wife and plays it perfectly, letting us know that the wife is more than Gere’s character realizes so that her revelation of knowledge about what’s going on at the end is more of a shock to him than it is to us. The ever-brilliant Tim Roth adopts a New York accent and almost comedically gorilla-like movement patterns in a strong turn as the detective investigating the girlfriend’s death, letting us know that he’s smarter than he appears at first glance and continuing with subtle touches to what could have been a bland, one note character throughout. Nate Parker is also noteworthy in his scenes, which reflect a humanity that the script does not give his otherwise well-troped character. He makes his character infinitely more interesting than Jarecki does, and he deserves a ton of credit for that.

Visually, Jarecki and cinematographer Yorick Le Saux have a television mentality. Much of the film is shot in very standard fashion, with colors and lighting exactly as one might find on the small screen. However, they do show a fascination with some rather unusual close-up shots in the first few minutes, the kind of shots that the showier type of television show uses to prove its edginess. It’s a dull film, visually, even if it is far from incompetent.

Overall, this film is quite poor. It’s not hellishly bad, but it’s strange that it got so much attention, which may largely have come from the revelation that Richard Gere could actually play one part correctly. It was a dull, cliched waste of time with nothing to say. In other words, this one was clearly not worth the two-hour investment.

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