“Arbitrage” makes an interesting case that the Bernie Madoffs and Kenneth Lays of the business world are our new American gigolos, seducing us with promises of riches, hustling our money, and leaving us feeling used in the morning. So casting Richard Gere as a Wall Street shark isn’t a total stretch. But neither is it entirely successful.
The film doesn’t take place during the 2008 financial collapse, but rather in its shadow — it’s a glossy work of revenge against the fat cats who brought down the economy and waltzed off with bonuses, yet its bile is cut with admiration. Robert Miller (Gere) sits atop a hugely successful New York investment firm and has landed, again, on the cover of Forbes. He has a loving wife, Ellen (Susan Sarandon), a hot mistress named Julie (Laetitia Casta), and a daughter, Brooke (Brit Marling), who’s his CFO and business heir.
Robert bestrides the world of wealth like a Colossus, yet Gere understands that his character’s power derives from style rather than content, from the aura of confidence rather than the dull plodding of hard work. It’s the same old come-on in a new bespoke suit, and it’s as irresistible as ever.
Or used to be. “Arbitrage” takes place during a bad week for its silken antihero. Having over-leveraged his firm’s money in a failed Russian copper mine, Robert’s in a hole no one else knows about. He has borrowed $400 million to cover the cash he stole from his investors and is selling his company to cover that; the buyer (who turns out to be played by Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, enjoying himself immensely) keeps Robert twisting in the wind.
On the personal side, the daughter is beginning to smell the red ink and the mistress is demanding more of his time. Then, in the film’s most shocking turn, a central character ends up dead and Robert is bedeviled by a pesky New York police detective played by a rumpled, tough-tawking Tim Roth. The screws tighten, and any other actor would start to visibly sweat. Gere just narrows his eyes and an extra wrinkle appears in his suit.
“Arbitrage” is a breezy watch, with good performances that don’t cut very deep and an eye for décor but little interest in what it’s decorating. What’s missing, really, is outrage, or a sense of the 99 percent. Roth’s cop has some grime on him but the part never breaks free of TV-cop cliché, and the one truly sympathetic character, Jimmy (Nate Parker) — a Harlem kid whose father once drove Robert’s limo and who helps the businessman out of a jam — feels like an obligatory drop-in from uptown. When Robert turns detective to help Jimmy late in the game, you wonder if you’ve stumbled into a Bizarro World remake of “The Verdict.”
Maybe it’s that writer-director Nicholas Jarecki (brother of documentarians Eugene and Andrew Jarecki) is from New York and shares the city’s fondness for ambitious bastards. Or maybe it’s that Gere, as pleasant as he is to watch, is the wrong man for the part. There’s no dirt under Robert’s fingernails but there had to have been once, and Gere, one senses, has never been without a manicure. He conveys hustle without the cutthroat edge — even the young tycoon played by Robert Pattinson in “Cosmopolis,” a much weirder but more pointed statement on extreme wealth and power, has more of a killer’s touch.
It’s Jarecki’s first feature film and you can see where he wants to go (and may yet). “Arbitrage” glides along with professionalism and good faith, but there’s very little genuine anger in it, and there needs to be — not just toward the Robert Millers of the world and their rapacious entitlement but in the veins of these characters shoving each other aside to get ahead. The movie wants to be an instant Sidney Lumet classic along the lines of “Serpico” or “Prince of the City,” but it doesn’t have the roots. It’s new money.Ty Burr can be reached at tburr
@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.