Gimlet-eyed Richard Gere, sans hamster, delivers a typically focused performance as a hedge fund manager whose professional and personal lives catch up with him. As usual, the actor is given to a mildly constipated performance; you’re never quite sure if he’s a master of subdued underplaying (read, stiff) or simply bored with the whole thing. But those tiny eyes ensure that he can never simply be a nice guy. Nicholas Jarecki’s film slots comfortably into the small financial crisis subgenre, but he disappointingly favours narrative fireworks over literate analysis.
It’s not that there’s anything very wrong in having a traditional suspense structure to hang his tale on; a determined detective (Tim Roth) investigates the scene of an auto accident Gere has deserted and attempted to cover up (he leaves his dead girlfriend in the car, desperate to preserve the secrecy of his affair from his family and to ensure that the projected sale of his firm to a big bank goes ahead). The problem is that the thriller element is only so-so at best, deriving its tension from oh-so familiar plot developments and interrogations (knowing that Jarecki was inspired by the De Niro-Pacino diner scene in Heat only serves to highlight how far short of a real master class he falls here). By the time a prosecution is hanging on a piece of very obviously manufactured evidence, we’ve long since started to call into question the director’s choices.
Jarecki, as first-time writer-director (he also furnished the screenplay for the lousy Bret Easton Ellis adaptation The Informers), does a better job as director. He shoots clearly and precisely, and has a firm grip on the trajectory of his narrative. Jarecki’s parents worked in the investment field, meaning that he’s drawing on what he knows, so it’s a little disappointing he doesn’t develop this world more fully. We learn early on that Gere has hidden a bad investment, and that he’s attempting to keep things fudged for as long as it takes the deal to go through. But Jarecki consistently soft-pedals the intricacies of the finance world, perhaps fearful that he will lose his audience.
Margin Call had the confidence to get down to the nuts and bolts of the economic crisis. Gere’s Bernie Madoff with a twinge of conscience is consistently much too filtered through his domestic and legal problems for the exploration to be other than oblique. Jarecki has loaded the dice dramatically, and it has the effect of taking the weight off what Gere actually does for a living. It’s just some dodgy finance stuff; that’s all we really need to know. Added to that, his family hold key positions with the firm so when the truth comes out it becomes about the devastating effect this has on his daughter (Brit Marling); meaty for the actors but a cop out for the subject matter. Jarecki chooses to conclude business in the same manner, further blunting any possibilities of commentary on the capitalist machine.
There’s an expectedly fine turn from Susan Sarandon as Gere’s wife and a great one from Nate Parker as the young man Gere calls when he’s in a straight. This is actually a strong plot thread, Gere willing to use and manipulate the only black guy he knows (as Parker puts it) in order to get his own way. The problem is that it further lends weight to the feeling that Jarecki’s world is a fiction, led by plot contrivance rather than substance. Still, it’s fun to see Jimmy Grant (Angel from The Rockford Files) as Gere’s attorney.
I’m sure Jarecki will pay off on the promise he shows here in due course. He does seem to have a slightly inflated opinion of his talents, if the end result is anything to go by (he was such a whizz kid prodigy that he advised on computer hacking on Hackers, don’t you know). And resisting the urge to compare himself to Orson Welles might be wise. But if he can eschew storylines beholden to over-calculated dramatics he could come up with something special.