Written by: Kristen Lopez, Editor in Chief
The last two years have provided a dearth of true-to-life inspiration to the Hollywood movers and shakers; mainly surrounding the US financial crisis. Unfortunately for movies in 2012, the financial crisis has tapered off and movies now are struggling to find new ways to tell the same old story. Last year’s Margin Call is the stand-out of all the films made about the 2010 financial disaster, and sadly this year’s Arbitrage doesn’t possess the same magic. Director/screenwriter Nicholas Jarecki tries to make something new by combining a financial movie with a murder mystery, but those two elements work as well as they sound. Sandwiched in there are okay performances, and a family of rich people you could care less about.
Hedge fund manager Robert Miller (Richard Gere) is in trouble. He’s broke, could be facing fraud, and his family situation is precarious due to his overbearing mistress. An accident changes his life, and forces him to find a way to balance all the broken pieces of his life, or die trying.
Arbitrage is a slick film that does have two interesting stories. The story of a wealthy man living above his means, and struggling to maintain his lavish lifestyle is an interesting way of examining the financial crisis; especially since it’s only happened recently that the upper classes have caught up with the financial issues that hit the lower and middle classes so hard. Miller has a good life as it is with his loving family, and yet he’s not satisfied and seeks comfort with his artist girlfriend, Julie (Laetitia Casta). When he considers getting out of the financial game his family is dumbfounded. His daughter Brooke (Brit Marling) tells him she can’t even imagine what they’d do all day having him not be busy. It’s obvious within the first couple of scenes this is a family that’s grown far too complacent with their wealth; particularly Robert’s wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon). The endless string of charities she runs all requires exorbitant amounts of money, and yet she doesn’t bat an eye when asking why Robert can’t give her money as it’s “only” a couple million.
The first twenty or so minute of Arbitrage is slow to establish the characters and their lives. One could expect this to be a fairly straightforward “wealthy man loses it all” story, and I would have enjoyed that. It wouldn’t have provided any surprises, but it would have forced the actors to deliver their best. The actors are rather good, but nothing out of the ordinary. Richard Gere, recently nominated for a Golden Globe for his role here, is solid as Robert. Newcomer Brit Marling, so fantastic in Sound of My Voice, feels lost as the socialite daughter Brooke. She has an emotionally charged scene confronting her father that you can’t look away from, but it only asserts how bland and wasted her talent is overall in this film. Sarandon and Casta are by far the worst as thinly written, vapid women. Sarandon is obsessed with money, yet continually blames her daughter as the reason why she’s so consumed. Casta is an over-the-top actress playing the thankless role of Robert’s mistress. She’s written to be a terrible person right down to snorting a line of cocaine, so when she dies in the middle it’s a thankless slap in the face.
Yes, Arbitrage throws a death into the mix at the halfway point. It’s a twist that could either bring something new to a stale plot, or drive it off the rails; we lean towards the latter. The character of Julie is already annoying, so you don’t feel bad at her death. On the same note, the stakes never feel high for Robert being punished. Police detective Michael Bryer (Tim Roth in a head-scratching role) continually yells that Robert thinks he’s above the law because of his wealth, and yet by the final ten minutes Robert is playing Nancy Drew and hoping to prevent a family friend from taking the rap for him. It’s a mixed bag of a film that is wildly uneven, lengthens the film twenty minutes unnecessarily, and distracts from the stronger financial plot.
No matter what, Arbitrage suffers from bad writing. I mention the mixed elements of the plot, but you also never care for the Millers at all. Robert is a man in trouble, and yet his continual response to all his problems is to throw money at it. He gets help from a family friend named Jimmy (Nate Parker), and expects Jimmy to serve time in jail for a large sum of money. Jimmy gets indignant and leaves only to come back to be insulted by Robert. The script has far too many characters repeat behavior that never works. For all of the Millers talk of being good people, they don’t stick to doing good things; Robert worst of all. It’s hard to sympathize with a man whose motto is “money solves everything.” The film confusingly seems to echo that logic by ending with little resolution. A character could be saved, Robert might decide to do the right thing, but the film never makes that assertion. Arbitrage wants to be a film where we love rich people, and yet rich people can’t do any wrong in this film.
Arbitrage has potential, but squanders it in its desperate need to be different. The wildly confused tone, message, and characters never coalesce into anything relatable or believable. The financial disaster segment is good, but not as good as Margin Call. I recommend watching that instead.
Author: Kristen Lopez, Editor in Chief
Kristen Lopez is the editor-in-chief of CC2K and a freelance pop culture essayist. Her work has appeared on Roger Ebert, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Daily Beast. When she’s not burning down Film Twitter she runs two podcasts, the female-centric film show Citizen Dame, and the classic film-themed Ticklish Business.