LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - In the new film drama "Arbitrage," Richard Gere brings shady Wall Street dealings to the big screen as a hedge fund titan trying to cover up huge losses from a risky copper investment.
The scheming recalls real-life scandals and high-flying bankers who made headlines and brought populist scorn to Wall Street during the recent financial crisis. While the public may be hungry to watch the downfall of a greedy banker, Gere's character in the movie that opens in U.S. theaters on Friday isn't an all-around bad guy.
Fictional billionaire Robert Miller "is not an evil person," insists the 63-year-old star of "Pretty Woman" and "Chicago." But, Gere admits, the chief executive officer does "spend his life believing his own hubris" and, along the way, "makes very bad decisions."
Despite Miller's illegal misdeeds and immense wealth, audiences see a humanness they relate to, Gere said. "I've been delighted by how many people came up to me and said they felt bad because they identified with him so much and wanted him to get out of his problems," the actor told Reuters.
Writer and director Nicholas Jarecki, who grew up in the world of high finance as the son of two New York commodities traders, said the character of Miller sprung from the 2008 financial crisis.
"Guys were being so vilified at that moment," Jarecki said, and he wanted to explore how they made decisions within a system that tempts people with great rewards but bears immense risk. He describes "Arbitrage" as "the classic tragic tale of a good man gone wrong."
The charming and ever-confident Miller in "Arbitrage" basks in the spoils of his success - a fancy Manhattan home, beautiful wife (Susan Sarandon), loving children, young French mistress, and more money than a person needs.
The picture-perfect life is threatened after Miller loses $400 million of his client's money through an investment in a Russian copper mine. Used to always prevailing, he schemes to hide the losses with phony books and quickly sell his firm before the fraud comes to light.
Even worse, Miller is covering up another crime that leaves real blood on his hands, fearing it will threaten the sale of his company. To outwit a detective on his trail, he needs help from a young man at the opposite end of the economic ladder. Miller is so out-of-touch with his accomplice's world that he has to ask him, "What's an Applebee's?"
When he created the financial-genius side of Miller's character, Jarecki said he drew on tycoons Warren Buffett, Richard Branson, and legendary hedge fund managers John Paulson and James Simons. But the investor closest to Miller, Gere said, is Jamie Dimon, the once-unimpeachable JP Morgan Chase chief executive who recently disclosed a $5.8 billion trading loss at his firm.
Like Dimon, Miller is "someone who is known for always winning," until one big bet goes wrong.
PLOT RINGS TRUE FOR TRADERS
Jarecki said he aimed to make an entertaining thriller rather than send any message about Wall Street. But if there were any lesson to be learned, he had concluded "there is something in our blood that makes us go for (financial) bubbles," he said.
"I think that's what this character personifies, this belief that the sky is the limit, and that it can go on forever," Jarecki said. "I think it can't."
"Arbitrage" opens Friday in about 180 U.S. theaters. It also will be available through video-on-demand the same day, a strategy used last by distributors Lions Gate and Roadside Attractions that helped lift financial crimes movie "Margin Call."
Jarecki said his story resonated with a group of hedge fund managers who got an early look at the film in East Hampton, New York - a wealthy resort popular with the Wall Street crowd. One of the investors who had lost money on a copper trade told Jarecki: "Your film has been a re-enactment of my personal nightmare."
Others viewed it as a cautionary tale of what could go wrong. "As a group, they said 'This film made me uneasy from beginning to end,'" Jarecki said. "For me, that was incredibly fulfilling."
(Reporting By Lisa Richwine, editing by Jill Serjeant and Philip Barbara)