Arbitrage (15)


Dir: Nicholas Jarecki

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With: Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Brit Marling

Runtime: 107 minutes

THE week after Oscars Sunday is traditionally a time when the industry puffs its winners for one last big push at driving audiences into the cinema before the DVD is released. It is also a moment to bury the dead or the deadly embarrassing, those pictures the studios took a flyer on, only to land with a cartoon splat.

This time, as so often in a year when cinema was keen to steer clear of the same old-same old, things are being done in a refreshingly different way, with several releases worth a look. There are still some zombies, but more of those elsewhere.

First up for your consideration is Arbitrage, a Bonfire of the Vanities for the noughties. Though it looks like a high-class TV movie, with some thinly sketched characters to match, Nicholas Jarecki's thriller has a couple of genuine movie stars to the fore in Susan Sarandon and Richard Gere.

It has been more than three decades since Gere first picked out just the right shade of tie to go with his Armani suit while Giorgio Moroder played in the background in American Gigolo. Gere became a star on the back of playing a gentleman who made house calls but wasn't selling fitted kitchens. Pretty Woman, An Officer and a Gentleman, Internal Affairs, and A-list status followed.

While the years have been kind to Gere's looks, his career has been having an extended nap since 2002's Chicago. Arbitrage shows, however, that when it comes to the buying and selling of a character, Gere can still do the business.

Gere plays Robert Miller, a financial master of the universe, with Sarandon playing his high-spending, charity-supporting wife. Miller is in hedge funds, wheeling and dealing with other people's money to earn a fat crust for himself. When Jarecki's picture opens he is rushing home to a birthday party with the wife, children and grandchildren. He appears to have it all, the happy, shiny family to go with the glossy magazine home.

But nothing is as it seems in Miller's world. About to sell his company and make a mint, Miller's big deal relies on him keeping lots of plates spinning. Besides having a busy work and family life, there are other demands on his time, demands that are about to make his life even more complicated.

As is the way with seismic events, cinema is just getting round to dealing with the bad habits and dodgy dealings that fuelled the financial collapse of 2008. Documentary makers were quickest off the mark, with Inside Job, Charles Ferguson's Oscar-winner, a triple A-rated piece of investigation and skewering. Margin Call was among the first to make a drama out of the crisis, followed by Brad Pitt's Killing Them Softly, which compared the mob to financiers. Surprisingly, the mob did not sue.

Arbitrage deals with matters in a more subtle fashion than Killing Them Softly, with Miller's 1000-piece jigsaw of a life standing as a symbol of a type of person, and a system, that had become too clever-clever, too complex, for its own good. Miller wants it all, and he fails to see why everyone should not help him get it.

After Jarecki sets up the story and starts to unpeel Miller's character, the rest of the cast are given a brief chance to shine. Nate Parker is impressive as the son of an old friend called upon by Miller to help him out of an awkward spot. Brit Marling (Another Earth) is quietly potent as Miller's daughter, who works for dad and functions as the conscience of the company (and the picture). Tim Roth is similarly notable as the police officer who has some questions for Miller to answer.

Sarandon is not used half as much as she should be, popping up at the start of the film then leaving it so long to reappear one almost forgets she is in the picture. The plot could have been chewier, and some of the characters are strictly two-dimensional, but overall Jarecki, here making his first feature, manages the material with a lot of verve.

His efforts are aided by having Gere in the cast and giving him the space to do his thing: the Gere "thing" being to look like the epitome of grooviness under pressure. He might not have had any big movies of late, but he has not lost an iota of confidence before the camera. Also looking good is New York City, a place where shiny town cars roam sedately while everyone hustles.

After the release of Arbitrage in the US, Gere was nominated for a best actor Golden Globe. He lost out, in common with everyone else this season, to the triple Oscar-winning Daniel Day-Lewis. There is no shame in that, and plenty to be proud of in Arbitrage. Funds and financial systems may come and go, but Gere remains a safe bet.