Dir. Nicholas Jarecki
(2012, R, 100 minutes)

Without intending to, Arbitrage plays like the story of two white men in authority who nearly wreck the life of a young, well-meaning black man in Harlem. I don’t mean to attribute any racial animus to the writer-director, Nicholas Jarecki, or even to the white characters, but there’s an under-explored theme in the film about how the struggle of two opposing forces causes undue strife for a more vulnerable man caught in the middle. That character, Jimmy Grant (Nate Parker), isn’t the central figure in the story, but I couldn’t help but imagine it from his point of view; giving someone a ride hasn’t caused a black man this much trouble since Collateral.

The main character is actually Robert Miller (Richard Gere), a hedge fund magnate anxious to sell his company for reasons his family doesn’t understand. He wants to stop and smell the roses, he says, but in reality he’s trying to recoup losses from a bad investment before anyone finds out he’s been cooking the books.

That’s one half of the story. The other half involves Robert’s extramarital affair with an art dealer and a car accident that puts him in another deep legal bind. He calls Jimmy to pick him up, and it’s all downhill from there.

Nate Parker, as Jimmy

The car accident storyline is unnecessary. It clutters the story without adding to it, and it introduces an unwelcome character: Detective Michael Bryer (Tim Roth), a cliché of working-class, chip-on-his-shoulder indignity. He wants to take down Robert because the rich and powerful so seldom pay for their crimes. That in and of itself is reasonable, but when the class crusader spends most of his time trying to railroad a poor black kid, he loses access to my sympathy.

Lacking that sympathy, there’s not much to drive my interest in him. He isn’t well-developed. What drives his bitter crusade against Robert beyond a vague class resentment is unclear. Most of his investigative tactics are of a familiar sort from police procedurals: he alternates between good cop and bad cop like a one-man band of criminal justice. And when he uses one highly unconventional – and ethically suspect – tactic, there’s no payoff.

I don’t know why the detective plot was included. It doesn’t arise naturally from the story. It adds incident but not interest. I think the corporate corruption storyline might have been better served on its own, though it’s not entirely successful either. There are a lot of scenes of desperation, anger, and betrayal as Robert struggles to avoid the consequences of his actions, but many of these scenes are curiously lacking in tension.

Consider a late confrontation between Robert and his wife, played by Susan Sarandon. This is a pivotal scene about the nature of their relationship and the future of their family, but Sarandon seems a bit detached from the emotion of the scene, as if she doesn’t have a fix on exactly what her underwritten character is feeling at that moment or how to express it.

There’s no shortage of intensity from Gere, Sarandon, or Brit Marling as their increasingly suspicious daughter, but there’s not enough dramatic energy to support them, no escalating suspense. The last scenes of the film don’t feel much more urgent than the first ones. The roll of the end credits left me wondering if it was worth the trouble to get there. Maybe Jimmy was feeling the same way.