Richard Gere, “Arbitrage” and the Oscar race: Our conversation with Nicholas Jarecki

By Sean O’Connell “Arbitrage” was one of those films. You know the type. You hear nothing but positive remarks following a splashy film-festival premiere (in this case, a debut at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival). It opens in limited release, and simultaneously screens on VOD. You intend on watching it. It’s right in your wheelhouse. And yet, you struggle to find the time.

I’m telling you: Find the time for “Arbitrage.” Writer-director Nicholas Jarecki stuns with a taut, thrilling crime drama set in Wall Street’s upper echelon that has very little to do with money and more to do with the drastic cost of one man’s simple mistake. Richard Gere gives one of the best performances of his storied career as Robert Miller, a high-powered hedge fund executive and dedicated family man who’s life swings on a dime following a tragic error. He’s riveting. And his work will be recognized at this year’s Hollywood Awards Gala, where Gere will receive our “Hollywood Career Achievement Award” on Monday, Oct. 22.

“It begins and ends with Richard,” Jarecki told me during a recent interview on behalf of his excellent film. “His performance is amazing. He’s instantly sympathetic and likable from his previous screen personas. He’s also, like in real life, a terrific guy and I think that bleeds through to the character and enhances him.

“In fact, when we began, I had a different conception of the character,” Jarecki continued. “I saw him as more of a math-schemed genius, hunched over [his keyboard]. It was never Madoff, because I thought Madoff was a sick person, a true criminal and a sociopath. I had a more math-type idea, and then Richard came and brought a new angle. I think he thought Bill Clinton was an inspiration for the part, with how to charm people. He brought a lot of that to the role, and I think peoplr respond to that.”

When Jarecki called to discuss “Arbitrage,” he has just returned from a screening at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, where he initially was surprised to see the film connect with what he assumed was a different audience. Upon reflection, however, Jarecki realized he never should have been concerned.

“It seem to cross cultures,” he told me. “I don’t know why. Maybe because it’s about money, and it’s about corruption, and it’s about the human soul, and what happens when you start messing with it. [Laughs] I don’t know!”

My theory is simpler than that. I believe people just respond to airtight writing and relatable characterization, especially when it’s handled with a subtle touch and realized by lived-in performances. “Arbitrage” is a remarkable construction, a confident and well-paced thriller with small stakes that feel massive and low-key performances that come across as massive.

All of it hinges on Robert Miller, a noble yet flawed hedge fund magnate impeccably played by Gere. Yet that character wasn’t even top of mind when Jarecki began putting his “Arbitrage” script together. He first envisioned the character of Jimmy Grant, a lower-class person on the periphery of a Bernie Madoff-type executive who gets pulled into a scandal against his will. That part eventually went to Nate Parker, and gave Jarecki – and his audience – the window into this posh world.

“What if these two guys had a connection that you didn’t necessarily understand? That could be something cool,” Jarecki told me. “I like Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie, ‘Hard Eight.’ Its not like the whole movie turns on this secret. I hate those movies where they are holding information from one character that the audience knows the whole time. That’s just boring, and I didn’t want to do something like that. But I thought if they had an unlikely relationship that was believable, and we could reveal that over time, then we could see how these two guys who are literally black and white at the other ends of the spectrum … both try to make their worlds what they could be. They’re both similar characters. One’s just younger, and has yet to be corrupted.”

There are secrets to “Arbitrage” that must be protected. Even though I’d heard a good deal about the film from colleagues and friends, I still was shocked by some of the reasonable twists Jarecki put into his riveting screenplay. We spoke at length about his process, and the collaborations he had with his incredibly gifted ensemble. But including that insight into this piece could potentially ruin some of the punches the writer-director lands with “Arbitrage.”

So let’s just say, “See it,” and bask in the performance that – if there’s justice – will earn Gere the first Oscar nomination of his career.

“Of course it’s nice for people to recognize the work that was done on my behalf,” Jarecki admits with a candor you don’t often get in these interviews. “I would love to see my actors recognized because I know how hard they worked. It was hard. … Awards only help us reach more people so they can see the movie, hopefully have fun, and honor the work of all my great participants.

“But, if nothing else happened from this point, it’s already so far beyond what I hoped for in terms of its reception that I’m very happy with where we are and nobody will be crying,” Jarecki continued. “The fact that Richard has never been nominated for an Academy Award in his entire career, though … maybe that can change. I mean, the thing is that Richard would be the first to tell you that he is a very reactive actor. He’s a very supportive actor. He brings out the best in other people, and I think sometimes because he’s subtle – he loves subtlety – it was possible for him to get overlooked. Is it a sin that he was overlooked for ‘Gigolo’ and ‘Officer and a Gentleman’ and ‘Chicago’ and things like that? Yes, it’s a sin. But here, what’s great is that we have a showcase for him and he delivers, in my opinion.”

And mine, as well.

Read more of our exclusive Awards coverage:
Our “Silver Linings Playbook” review
Ben Affleck tells us about “Argo” and the possibility of more Dennis Lehane stories
Bryan Cranston calls “Argo” his “proudest moment in motion pictures.”
Helen Hunt opens up about on-screen nudity for “The Sessions”
Amy Adams lends strength to “The Master”
Producer Harvey Weinstein

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