Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage is the latest example of an increasingly popular genre: the white-collar white-knuckler, which suggests that since the real thieves today are sitting in corporate boardrooms, paperwork and bargaining can be as tense as any shootout. Arbitrage stars Richard Gere as a renowned venture capitalist who runs into trouble when his attempt to sell his company—combined with an untimely auto accident—threatens to reveal the financial and personal improprieties he’s tried for years to keep from his wife (Susan Sarandon) and daughter/protégée (Brit Marling). Jarecki means to lay bare the arrogance of the powerful, showing how they make deals based on perception, not reality. He does this via a narrative that unfolds over a few days, neatly making all his points about corrupt institutions.
Arbitrage’s main issue isn’t that it’s contrived, it’s that Jarecki is so conventional in his approach to the material. This plot would lend itself well to “last act of Goodfellas” mode, with all the hero’s spinning plates beginning to wobble simultaneously. Instead, Jarecki is thoroughly square, building the film on mano-a-mano confrontations and conversations that advance the story and themes, but do little to shade in his world or jangle the viewers’ nerves. Each new character Jarecki introduces—a demanding mistress, a ruthless rival, the working-class son of a former employee—fills exactly the expected role, primarily by defining how Gere is adept at manipulating people.
To be fair, though, with the cast he has, Jarecki doesn’t need to make his authorial presence known much. Between Gere matching wits with a police detective played by Tim Roth, and Gere having to explain himself to the steely Sarandon, Arbitrage is never dull. Gere makes his selfish fat-cat so sympathetic that his horrible choices seem almost comprehensible, while Sarandon works wonders with a small role, illuminating a woman who’s willing to play the part of the devoted wife as long as the situation is mutually beneficial, but not one day longer. As these characters jostle with each other, making demands and swapping lies, Jarecki gets across something meaningful about how for a certain type of person, everything in life is a negotiation.