Scared Gere, Stuffed Puppy Catch Sundance Fest’s Fancy: Review

Susan Sarandon and Richard Gere in "Arbitrage." Photographer: Myles Aronowitz/Sundance Film Festival via Bloomberg

From the high-finance suspense of “Arbitrage,” which Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions reportedly purchased for $2.5 million, to a slew of angry, man-the-ramparts documentaries, some of the Sundance Film Festival’s most buzz-worthy films tapped into the country’s financial stress and social unrest.

Now it’s up to the 1 percent to decide which ones might make a splash in the indie-film marketplace.

“Arbitrage,” written and directed by Nicholas Jarecki in his feature debut, stars Richard Gere as billionaire hedge funder Robert Miller, desperate to sell his company before $400 million in cooked books is uncovered. Facing the financial ruin of both his business and his picture-perfect family, Miller goes into full panic mode when a car crash leaves his mistress dead and invites the scrutiny he fears.

Set against a backdrop that includes Wall Street, deluxe Manhattan penthouses and glitzy charity balls, “Arbitrage” finds its most compelling moments in a “Bonfire of the Vanities”-type subplot that has Miller drawing a young, black Harlem man -- the son of his former chauffer -- into the cover-up of the deadly car wreck.

Two-Tiered Justice

At a post-screening Q&A, Gere addressed the film’s depiction of moral ambiguity, infidelity and two-tiered justice.

“Most of the people we’ve seen fall, whether Bill Clinton or certain financial people, every one of them has come back,” he said. “Every wife has stayed with the guy, every daughter has forgiven. It’s just the way the world works.”

A release date for “Arbitrage” has not been announced.

Nice Digs

No documentary was as quick to catch fire as “The Queen of Versailles,” Lauren Greenfield’s oddly endearing portrait of self-made, 74-year-old Florida billionaire David Siegel and his wife Jackie, a former-cocktail waitress 30 years his junior.

“Versailles” begins as the Siegels start construction on what would be America’s largest single-family home -- a 90,000-square-foot monstrosity modeled on Louis XIV’s palace, set close enough to Disneyworld to afford views of the nightly fireworks.

Stuffed Doggie

Filmed over the course of several years and a crashing economy, “Versailles” begins as a quirky look at the indiscreet charms of the nouveau riche.

Jackie proudly displays the stuffed remains of her beloved Pomeranian while David boasts, although regretfully, of having secured the Florida votes that sent George W. Bush to the White House.

With the Wall Street crash of 2008, the Siegels’ fortunes all but evaporate. The couple, their seven children and a teenage niece pad around their starter home -- a mere 26,000-square-foot gilded manse -- with a dwindling staff and piling trash. Their Versailles remains unfinished.

“I was interested during the Boom in the connection between the American Dream and home ownership and building bigger and bigger,” said Greenfield, who won Sundance’s directing award for a documentary. The Seigels were “the ultimate realization of that dream.”

(Shortly before the start of the festival, David Siegel filed a lawsuit against the Sundance Institute and the director, asserting that a Sundance summary of the film as a “rags to riches to rags” tale was defamatory. Siegel himself uses a nearly identical phrase in the film. Greenfield declined to comment on the suit.)

Magnolia Pictures plans a summer release for “Versailles.”

‘We’re Not Broke’

Some films with a more activist approach had still not scored distribution deals by the end of the festival on Sunday.

“We’re Not Broke,” a smart muckraker by Karin Hayes and Victoria Bruce, investigates the offshore tax havens that allow publicly bailed-out corporations to score record-setting profits. (Bloomberg News is among the sources credited by the film for data and statistics; interviews with reporter Jesse Drucker are featured throughout.)

Looking At Hunger

“Finding North” (a stirring docu that would benefit from a title change) examines hunger in America.

Directors Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush train their cameras on the various and diverse faces of Americans with “food insecurity” -- those who don’t know when the next meal is coming -- and persuasively demonstrates a link between underfunded social programs, the nation’s obesity and its empty stomachs.

Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s “Detropia” (like “Finding North” and “We’re Not Broke”) spotlights the nation’s economic downswing by examining particulars -- in “Detropia,” the decimation of Detroit by the auto industry’s decline and the outsourcing of labor to Mexico.

Impressionistic and visually beautiful (the film won the Sundance award for U.S. documentary editing), “Detropia” captures its characters -- a union man, a tavern-owner whose working-class clientele disappeared with the auto plants, hipster artists moving into abandoned buildings -- as their once-vibrant city is literally sold for scrap metal to China.

American Axle

Missing from “Detropia” -- and most of the other post-Occupy docmentaries -- are representatives of the 1 percent.

Ewing said lengthy negotiations with executives from American Axle & Manufacturing -- a Detroit auto parts plant that moved some manufacturing to Mexico and is featured prominently in the film -- fell apart when the company demanded final approval of the film.

“If American Axle changes its mind and wants to come forward,” she said, “we’ll drop them into the film.”

(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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