There are two movies living inside Nicolas Jarecki‘s Arbitrage. Both films are about justice and a wealthy man’s struggle to elude it. They both appeal to our hope that one day the truth will out and that no one can hide their dark secrets forever no matter how desperately they might try. Both stories transcend class because we can all relate to a character who will stop at nothing when he’s at risk of losing everything. But only one story helps Arbitrage stand apart by intelligently showcasing a crime we rarely see depicted in film and embracing the rich drama of family betrayal. The other story is a dull episode of Law & Order.
Robert Miller (Richard Gere) is the successful manager of a hedge fund firm who seems like he has it all, so naturally he doesn’t. He’s on the verge of losing his fortune after a bad investment and subsequently cooking of the books. Robert hides his precarious financial situation from his family, even his daughter and employee, Brooke (Brit Marling). He’s desperate to have his company bought by another firm, but the potential buyer’s foot-dragging only adds to Robert’s stress. But Robert also has another secret: he’s keeping a mistress (Laetitia Casta) on the side. One night when the two are driving together, Robert falls asleep at the wheel, the car crashes, the mistress dies, and Robert flees the scene. He then calls on Jimmy Grant (Nate Parker), an old acquaintance, to drive him away from the crash and be an accomplice in Robert’s cover-up. The rest of the story has Robert trying to hide his financial crimes from Brooke and hiding his other crimes from the dogged Detective Bryer (Tim Roth).
In terms of the plot, there’s almost no cross-over between the two stories. They share the same theme and the same attempt at a cover-up, but neither story influences the other in any meaningful way. Arbitrage mainly involves Robert hopping between his cover-ups with the occasional scene showing Brooke or Jimmy being angry and fearful about being sucked into Robert’s crimes. The film’s attempt at comparing the cover-ups only demonstrates a redundancy and we’re left wondering why we have to spend time with a boring storyline when the other crime would have made for a compelling drama on its own.
Arbitrage is at its most captivating and confident when it’s showing us Robert’s financial drama. The movie never talks down to its audience and instead lets the characters use real financial jargon that we already understand (e.g. “return”, “capital”) or explaining the terms and dealings in a natural, unforced way. While it may be hard to articulate the financial crimes that destroyed our economy, Robert’s crime seems almost quaint by comparison: he defrauded investors. The punishment for the death of his mistress would be severe, but being caught for his financial crimes would ruin Robert just as easily. So if everything is already on the line with the financial case, why add a crime where the punishment would be equally dire?
The manslaughter case adds absolutely nothing to Arbitrage. Bryer investigates the crime, Jimmy struggles to cover-up for Robert, and Robert frets about whether or not Jimmy will crack. The need to have the law bearing down on Robert adds drama, but why couldn’t the law enforcement agent be investigating the financial cover-up? The film would keep the antagonist but ditch the uninteresting mistress-death cover-up. Parker gives a fine performance but none of his interactions with Robert come close to the relationship between Robert and Brooke. An intense confrontation between father and daughter is by far the best scene in the film and it has absolutely nothing to do with the dead-mistress plot.
When Arbitrage plays to its strengths, it’s a smart, compelling drama that draws us deeper into a criminal cover-up that’s unlike most of the criminal cover-up dramas we tend to see in movies and on TV. The weaker storyline of Arbitrage is the like most of the criminal cover-up dramas we’ve seen in movies and on TV. Jarecki’s attempt to carry both storylines makes the movie a constantly frustrating endeavor as we wonder why the weaker plot wasn’t absorbed into the better story or discarded altogether. The introduction of the dead-mistress plotline is a hedge against the more complicated (but also more rewarding) financial crime plotline, and the result is a weak return.
For all of our coverage of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, click here. Also, here are links to all of my Sundance reviews so far: