The time couldn't be more ripe for a Bonfire of the Vanities. Tom Wolfe's 1987 novel defined the decade's empty materialism in the depiction of a Wall Street "Master of the Universe" who sees every aspect of his go-go lifestyle collapse. Twenty-five years later, the economy continues to struggle to rebound, while the financiers responsible for its collapse remain unpunished.
The white-collar crime drama Arbitrage initially looks like a 21st-century Bonfire. Richard Gere plays brilliant hedge fund manager Robert Miller who relies on fraud and deception to sustain his family's status as privileged one-percenters. First-time writer/director Nicholas Jarecki grasps the complexities of Manhattan's giant financial institutions, but the dramatic stakes remain stubbornly low and the film echoes the visual blandness of an investment prospectus.
Arbitrage even downgrades the film's connection to the recent financial crisis, alluding to a U.S. economy that's "picking up steam" and describing Robert as "the Oracle of Gracie Square" who made a fortune betting against the last decade's housing bubble. As the film opens, Robert plans to merge his hedge fund with a larger corporation, cash out at the height of his success, and enjoy retirement with his wife (Susan Sarandon).
In reality, Robert's company has been hemorrhaging money and he's secretly borrowed $400 million until the merger goes through. His creditor (Larry Pine) hectors him for repayment, but Robert's prospective buyer keeps deferring a meeting to finalize the merger. Has something happened to queer the deal? Robert's attempts to finesse the situations evoke Fargo's William H. Macy and his desperation to plug the holes in his flailing get-rich schemes.
Despite the façade of a perfect life (or maybe as a part of it), Robert keeps a young French artist (Laetitia Casta) as a mistress, but their attempt to make a one-night getaway ends with a Chappaquiddick-like disaster. Robert seeks assistance from Jimmy (Nate Parker), the son of his deceased driver, who apparently served as a kind of off-the-books troubleshooter. Robert enlists Jimmy to cover up his involvement in the accident, despite the investigation of a rough-hewn New York detective (Tim Roth, who defines his character with bad posture).
Robert's uneasy relationship with Jimmy leaves plenty of room for commentary on contemporary class and race relations, but Arbitrage leaves these themes largely unexplored. The best scenes involve Robert's daughter Brooke (Sound of My Voice's Brit Marling, whom Robert treats as his heir apparent, even though he secretly doesn't see her as an equal partner).
Arbitrage presents a world in which nearly everyone lies in one way or another to get ahead, whether the untruths amount to perjury, falsified evidence, or just a bluff in a negotiation. A highlight finds Robert hammering out a zillion-dollar deal on a restaurant menu, and Gere captures the brinkmanship and competitive spirit that created Robert's success, as well as the self-regard that precipitated his downfall. As original sins go, however, dishonesty seems oversimplified given the film's network of corruption and cover-ups.
The film arrives in theaters a year after Margin Call, a Wall Street drama devoted almost entirely to hushed conversations in bland boardrooms, yet exponentially more engrossing than Arbitrage. Margin Call conveyed a sense of impending financial and social meltdown, with corporate morals off-kilter to the point of mutually assured destruction. Where Margin Call enumerated Big Money's high crimes, Arbitrage's conflicts come across as misdemeanors worthy of small-claims court.