PARK CITY - Over the past few years, there have been an increasing number of pictures that were questionable inclusions to Sundance's premieres slate. A few them were actually good films ("The Company Men," "Smart People," "Cedar Rapids," ), but many were star-filled pseudo indies seemingly intended to satisfy sponsor attendees and the affluent contributors looking for a little bit of Hollywood during their Park City festival vacation ("The Great Buck Howard," "Brooklyn's Finest," "Motherhood," "The Butterfly Effect," "My Idiot Brother" and "The Son of No One" come to mind). A good deal of these films would have been more appropriate at the more commercial Toronto Film Festival (and it's worth noting the opposite is true with pictures such as "My Sister's Sister" debuting at Toronto this past year). Saturday night featured two of these broad, star-filled premieres: "Arbitrage" and "Lay the Favorite." The former was clearly the better of the two, but it still another disappointment for an edition of the festival where that's become the operative word.
The big screen debut of writer/director Nicholas Jarecki, "Arbitrage" centers on wealthy New York businessman Robert Miller (pRichard Gere as a much classier Donald Trump) who is in the final stages of selling his holding company to a competitor in order to provide a secure and lasting future for his expanding family. The audience soon discovers, however, that Robert and his underlings are hiding a major loss in an independent audit needed to approve the sale. Unless Robert's company is purchased by the end of the week the temporary cover up will come to light and our "hero" could find himself going to jail for 20 years for financial mis-dealings. Robert has kept this secret from his family including smart daughter and company CIO Brooke ("Another Earth's" Brit Marling providing some indie cred) and supportive wife (Susan Sarandon). If things weren't complicated enough, Robert has been engaging in an affair with Julie (Laetita Costa), a tempestuous and passionate French artist (aren't they all?) who has grown increasingly impatient as his second priority (yes, she really does say "You're never going to leave her are you?"). After a dramatic night that coincidentally features both an important business meeting gone wrong and Julie's big art show, the pair set out to escape the stress by driving to Robert's secluded and no doubt gorgeous cabin upstate. Before you know it, a terrible accident occurs and Robert spends the rest of the film trying to weave and then untangle a web of lies while also desperately trying to sell his company so his family won't go broke. If it sounds like a lot it is and when Tim Roth arrives as a New York detective investigating the accident the picture makes a strange detour to "Law & Order" territory (cue the "L&O" music).
It's clear Jarecki is using "Arbitrage" to segue to a studio career and that's fine, but he cant bring enough original style to the proceedings to make the screenplay any less convoluted or compelling. As for his stars, Gere has played this type of character numerous times before, but gets credit for doing everything in his power to keep it watchable. The picture is also assisted by Marling who makes it ten times more interesting every time she steps on screen. You just wish there was more for her to do. Sarandon, who was attached to an earlier version of the project with Al Pacino and Eva Green, is hardly involved in the proceedings except for a climactic scene with Gere over the fate of their marriage. The two vets try to make it as believable as possible, but Jarecki just can't pull it off.
Numerous mini-majors and studios could no doubt cut an interesting trailer for "Arbitrage" (Jarecki has provided enough slick shots), but box office prospects seem limited in the U.S. The film will find a more suitable audience on cable or VOD.
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