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Somewhere, Sidney Lumet must be smiling.
There's a definite touch of Lumet, who died in 2011, in writer-director Nicholas Jarecki's feature debut, "Arbitrage," a tough and tense thriller that's also a shrewd study of how corruption permeates from the top of the heap down to the rest of us.
At the top of this particular heap is hedge-fund tycoon Robert Miller, sharply and smoothly played by Richard Gere (who portrayed a similar character for Lumet in the 1984 political drama "Power"). Miller's duplicitous character is summed up in two early scenes, first telling CNBC anchor Maria Bartiromo (playing herself) that his driving force is money, and later, at his 60th birthday party, telling his family that they are the reason he keeps going.
As he says this, Robert is working out a deal to sell his multimillion-dollar company, and he's on a tight deadline: He's borrowed more than $400 million from a financier (Larry Pine) to cover a hole on his balance sheet so the buyer's auditors don't notice and the financier wants his money back by Friday.
He could also get caught cheating on his dutiful wife, Helen (Susan Sarandon), when he skips out to see his mistress, Julie (Laetitia Casta), a French art-gallery owner. His liaison with Julie leads to a tragic moment, which has Robert trying to cover up something more grave than fraud.
Robert juggles his lies with an acrobat's dexterity. The act gets tougher to maintain as the financial fraud is noticed by Robert's daughter, Brooke (Brit Marling), who's also the company's chief investment officer, and Robert's other cover-up attracts the attention of Det. Dryer (Tim Roth), a dogged NYPD investigator.
Jarecki part of a solid filmmaking family, as his brothers Andrew ("Capturing the Friedmans") and Eugene ("Why We Fight," "The House I Live In") have won documentary honors at the Sundance Film Festival steeps "Arbitrage" in the luxe trappings of Robert's wheeler-dealer world. And his well-honed script delves into the fallout of Robert's lies, from Helen's charity work to the human damage when others, like Dryer, try to emulate his bending of the rules.
The two actresses who stand out here are Marling, who depicts Brooke as a sharp cookie still possessing traces of integrity, and Sarandon, whose Helen is comfortable with wealth but knowing more than she lets on about how it's accumulated.
But "Arbitrage" belongs to Gere. He revels in Robert's suave handling of business rivals, and the sweat when he thinks his world may soon be crumbling. And Gere does it with such a mix of gravity and charisma that the audience will be torn between hoping he gets nailed and rooting for him to get away with it. Gere makes Robert's amorality appealing, which in itself conveys Jarecki's message about the seductive nature of Wall Street corruption.
Richard Gere is riveting as a Wall Street magnate juggling his many lies.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas.
When • Opens Friday, Sept. 14.
Rating • R for language, brief violent images and drug use.
Running time • 100 minutes.