As filmmakers struggle to craft stories of the Financial World after the fall, they continue to face the challenge of navigating the towers of privilege without losing the audience's sympathy. Before 2008, it was easy: We lionized the Masters of the Universe unapologetically and didn't fault our films for doing likewise. Now that they've crashed the American economy into the highway divider, we loathe them with as much intensity as we envied them. However, Nicholas Jarecki's impressive feature debut Arbitrage manages to walk that treacherous path with startling assuredness as it tells the tale of an aforementioned Master trying to keep the threads of his Universe from unraveling. He's a shark with a heart of gold who justifies his moral evasions, like fleeing from the scene of a fatal car wreck or hiding a $400 million hole in his balance sheet, by the intricate web of lives dependent on his largesse. The story is nothing new--even the look of the film stock calls to mind 80s drama thrillers. (The kind of movies we used to consider standard studio fare). Or maybe it's the star: Richard Gere. More than anything, Arbitrage makes you appreciate the incomparable Gere, that quintessential silver-maned lion of the power nobility. Without breaking its flawless lines, Gere's face (now bearing a few more of those lines) can project anguish, rage, and despair and lose none of its playful charm. Arbitrage is essentially a standard potboiler, to go on Gere's Greatest Semi-Hits list besides Primal Fear and Red Corner -- but in his hands, he elevates it. In one moment, he has us empathizing with a protagonist who bemoans the vanity of the cloistered world that forces him into his moral evasions; in the next, he elicits dark admiration as he makes a devil of a deal against another silver-maned lion of the power set played by Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter. Perhaps it's a sign that the animal spirits behind our economy are brightening, but I couldn't help smiling at the guilty pleasure of watching the 1 percent get away with it one last time.
Not as bright was Stephen Frears' Lay the Favorite. It had everything going for it: Mr. Macho Bruce Willis; Rebecca Hall, one of the bright young actresses of her generation; and gambling. But even in the hands of a maestro like Frears, and despite all that acting talent, the story felt unfocused and inconsequential -- like a bunch of A-list stars trying to scrub off the sins of their success with a well-intentioned meandering indie movie. Which is exactly what this is. On the plus side, I am now infinitely less afraid of my bookie. On the opposite side of the indie spectrum was a promising start from young filmmakers: For a Good Time Call... Shooting L.A. for New York, hip shorts-director Jamie Travis makes a solid debut aided by a wickedly raunchy script from Lauren Miller (also one of the two leads) and Katie Anne Naylon about two Grammercy Park roomies who try to make their rent by opening their own phone sex service. Catching a ride on the Bridesmaids tsunami that proves even women can do crude comedy, For a Good Time Call... succeeds by virtue of its youth, energy, and indie can-do-grit--with a couple of assist cameos from Kevin Smith and Seth Rogen (Miller's husband). The emotional arcs aren't any more complex than say Superbad, but the jokes are tight and breezy and Miller was sporting a last-laugh grin as she recounted her and Naylon's trials trying to get the script made in the studio system. Despite Miller's intimate knowledge of how studios work as a former D-girl, no one would buy into "female broad comedy," and Miller said she protested, "Wait, there's this movie Bridesmaids coming, you'll see...!" Of course, they ended up making the movie on their own with the indie happy-ending that only Sundance could provide.
As for me, I ended my festival experience with the perfect coda. Catching a beer and the amazing end of the Giants/49ers game at Cisero's lounge on Main St., I had the quintessential Sundance encounter. One of the bright-eyed actors from Black Rock, Will Bouvier was at the bar eager to raise a glass to the incredible news that the film had just secured the festival's most sought-after prize: A seven-figure distribution deal. It had been splashed all over Deadline Hollywood, further evidence that while the power players may rope off every venue on Main St. to project the aura of exclusivity and fame that makes Sundance sparkle, the true prestige is derived from the talent of the filmmakers and their films -- because that's what the 1 percent, with all the money in the world, can't buy. So, they buy the distribution rights instead. Catching a cab back through the slush-strewn streets, I couldn't help smiling at that thought, as I left behind the mecca of American independent film to pack for the flight home.