Oliver Stone was right: money never sleeps. And Stone's ham-fisted thesis is made literal as the camera spies on Richard Gere -- a fraud-committing, hedge fund-managing billionaire -- staring at the ceiling in bed, while charity-minded, gala-organizing wife Susan Sarandon sleeps contentedly by his side.
The man has a lot on mind, of course, Rubik's-Cubing a deal to sell his company and cover a $400 million hole in his books before his personal lender moves in to collect, all while keeping his upstanding, high-level exec daughter (Brit Marling) completely in the dark. He's also got to maintain appearances socially while Sarandon waits impatiently for a hospital foundation check to be written ("It's only two million," she says, casually, as if she were ordering salad dressing on the side) and while his even more impatient French gallerist girlfriend (Laetitia Casta) fumes over her status as a piece on the side. Then there's the horrible car accident he caused, one he's covering up with the help of lawyers and a mysterious friend (Nate Parker). And now the walls are closing in. He's busy.
The reason you care about his fate, the reason you wait with equal anticipation for his long fall into an appropriate circle of damnation or for a demonstration of snaky ability to avoid all punishment, whatever the movie decides to do with him, is Gere himself. He's returned to American Gigolo form here, as simultaneously chill, magnetic and morally aloof as the character he played 30 years ago. In fact, this guy could be that character, all grown up, wisely investing his prostitution earnings after the late-'80s stock market crash, getting an MBA, building a financially voracious yet ethically bankrupt empire out of the rubble and getting away with it all because he looks and smiles like Richard Gere.
Another movie in theaters right now, David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis, investigates a similar theme, a powerful billionaire in freefall whose world crumbles around him. But where Cronenberg's daring, hypnotic drone of a movie risks alienating its audience, director Nicholas Jarecki aims for the middle and relies on a no-excess approach to plotting and his talented actors (including Tim Roth, a lot of fun as a scrappy detective) to fuel this solidly conventional, highly entertaining white-collar crime thriller.
Part of the pleasure is in witnessing the fascinating moral mechanics of the super rich. Money, for Gere's big boss, is fantasy football ("What else is there?" he asks at one point and then, at another, describes it as "God.") and his Atlas Shrugged-constructed ego ("I am on my own path," he tells Marling) is how he wins the games he plays. And as time runs out for the handsome Bernie Madoff avatar, the rest of the movie's weight is carried by characters who learn, one by one, that they're caught up in his crimes. You find yourself anticipating, and maybe worried about, their betrayal for righteousness' sake or their willingness to look the other way.
"Fun" isn't the word people throw around anymore when they're talking about the financial sector and its economy-destroying antics, but that's the takeaway here. It's not as deep or revelatory as it probably thinks it is, but fine. Watching Inside Job was a despair-filled bummer, anyway. Think of this as its more popcorn-friendly cousin, a how-to movie for economic sociopaths.