Nicholas Jarecki’s ‘Arbitrage’ makes a promising debut

When the writer-director Nicholas Jarecki came to Washington with his movie “Arbitrage” last month, local critic Nell Minow interviewed him after the screening. Noting that the film world is already familiar with Jarecki’s half-brothers Andrew (“Capturing the Friedmans,” “All Good Things”) and Eugene (“Why We Fight,” “Reagan”), Minow initially had just one question for Nick: “What did your mom put in the Corn Flakes?”

As it turns out, Andrew, Eugene and Nicholas share the same father but different mothers (there’s a fourth Jarecki sibling, Tom, who so far has resisted the siren call of celluloid). As Nick said recently, “I think we’re all baffled, because we share a father who has no interest in film!”

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What the Jarecki boys do share is a father who is a commodities trader — which helps account for why Nick chose to make his narrative feature debut with “Arbitrage.” The film stars Richard Gere as Robert Miller, a self-made billionaire who has made a fortune as a hedge fund manager. As the film progresses, Miller’s high-flying world begins to collapse as he becomes the victim of both the economic times and his hubris. It’s an environment with which Jarecki is intimately familiar, from Manhattan at its most plush and well-heeled to breakfast meetings where corporate garrotings are delivered as discreetly as the perfectly chilled butter.

“Arbitrage,” which co-stars Susan Sarandon, Brit Marling and Nate Parker, marks a striking, assured debut for Jarecki, 33, whose previous experience spans computer hacking, writing a book, and directing and producing documentaries (“The Outsider,” “Tyson”). “It took a good 10 or 12 years to get there,” said Jarecki, phoning from his car in Los Angeles, in between a meeting at 20th Century Fox and grabbing a sandwich. “It was not easy to get going.”

The wait seems to have been worth it: “Arbitrage” was one of the best-received films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, gaining distribution soon after it premiered there. Reviews out of Park City were glowing, with words such as “gripping” and “thrilling” appearing as frequently as “silver fox” to describe Gere’s shrewdly charismatic performance.

Jarecki graduated from New York University film school at 19, having decided to become a director when he served as a technical adviser on the film “Hackers.” He recalled: “I thought: ‘Who is this guy that Angelina Jolie keeps talking to and seems to really respect? The director? Okay.’ ” When he had trouble finding work as a filmmaker, Jarecki wrote a book about first-time directors called “Breaking In: How 20 Film Directors Got Their Start.” His first movie, “The Outsider,” was about one of the book’s subjects, James Toback. “I spent 12 years doing different things in film trying to figure out the story I wanted to tell,” he said.

In 2008, Jarecki read a series of articles in Vanity Fair about the financial meltdown, and knew that, between his knowledge of Wall Street through his parents (his mother is also a trader) and his own love of the tough urban thrillers of the 1970s, he had found his sweet spot. “I had met a bunch of traders in my life, and I have a feel for that part of the city — the townhouses, banks and buildings downtown. So it just seemed like a great place for me to be,” he noted.

True to Jarecki’s family and cinematic roots, “Arbitrage” is suffused both with hushed authenticity and the taut narrative style that characterized the work of such 1970s masters as Sidney Lumet and William Friedkin. Perhaps Jarecki’s most recent predecessor is Tony Gilroy, whose 2006 film “Michael Clayton” is a similar thriller in style and sensibility. Why would a young filmmaker on the rise choose to make the kind of adult drama that Gilroy himself recently said was nearly impossible to make in Hollywood?

“I think it’s possible,” Jarecki said of the kind of films he wants to make. “At this point, I’ve done things I imagined were close to impossible. I think you just have to believe in the dream and go for it. They’re basically not making this kind of film, the store’s closed, they don’t really want new people, they only want event-driven pictures. But then there is another group making more adult fare that’s a little more complex and more character-oriented. Those movies can still be thrilling and dramatic and exciting and funny, they’re just done in a different way, independently with less resources.”

Jarecki hopes that next year will find him directing his sophomore effort — another thriller, this time set in Los Angeles and the world of surveillance and electric cars. He admits that with “Arbitrage” such an early critical hit, the stakes only get higher with the next project. “If I go wrong, then it gets hard,” he said. “Somebody once said that in our business, the hardest thing is to break in and the second hardest thing is to come back after two flops.” So far, at least, Jarecki has nothing to worry about.

“Arbitrage” opens in Washington on Friday.

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