Sundance 2012: Is ‘Arbitrage’ this year’s ‘Margin Call'?
It's inevitable that any Sundance movie about financial malfeasance these days will be compared to "Margin Call," the Kevin Spacey-Zachary Quinto Wall Street drama that was one of the few hits to emerge from last year's film festival.
It's both an apt and inaccurate comparison in the case of "Arbitrage," Nicholas Jarecki's fictional film about a Wall Street tycoon named Robert Miller(Richard Gere) and his attempt to keep a spiraling crisis under control. In the film, which premiered Saturday night at the festival, Miller finds himself in over his head when he makes a colossally bad investment and, if that wasn't enough, falls asleep at the wheel while driving his mistress to a weekend getaway, causing an accident that kills her. Fearful of jeopardizing a big deal that can save his ailing company, Miller covers his tracks and flees the scene, denying he had a role in the accident.
Much of the movie, which does not yet have U.S. distribution, centers on Miller's effort to limit the damage as things go from bad to worse. An aggressive detective comes after him about the car accident, the debtors are calling, the company sale is in danger of falling through and his daughter and chief investment officer (Brit Marling) feels betrayed by his shady investment. And his wife (Susan Sarandon) has a few beefs of her own.
The film echoes "Margin Call" in its exploration of how financial dubiousness can take a deep personal toll. But while the movie has no great love for the 1%, a larger systemic failure isn’t on its mind, either. The global financial crisis is barely mentioned, and even Miller's self-serving shadiness, despicable as it is, is never designed to rob innocents. In fact, in very un-Madoff style, Miller is concerned with making sure money is returned to investors. (Jarecki later said in a text message that he had written the movie before "Margin Call" premiered last year.)
After the screening, an audience member asked Jarecki how he felt about the fact that there had been little criminal accountability for the financial crisis as well as the fact (spoiler alert -– please skip to the last paragraph if you’d rather not know) that he had written a movie in which a tycoon’s comeuppance is limited at best.
Jarecki offered that he believed there was some karmic justice in his movie. “At the end he’s alone,” Jarecki said. “He does get away with it, but he loses something spiritually.”
Marling then added that she felt the movie contained a cautionary message. “It’s a parable for how we lose our morality slowly” she said. “You make tiny compromises and then suddenly it’s a fast slide and you’re not the person you thought you were.”
-- Steve Zeitchik in Park City, Utah
Photo: Brit Marling and Richard Gere in "Arbitrage." Credit: Myles Aronowitz