The conflicted rich, those in the gray areas, are the new attractive movie bad guys.
The movie bad guy may wear a black hat, but gray has always been his color. Lately, it seems, Gray is showing up in a Brioni suit with a diversified portfolio of several billion dollars.
That filmmakers would have their eye on Wall Street and the morality of unfettered capitalism is hardly a shock. Nor is the idea that the world of high finance could provide meaty villains or, at least, intriguingly disreputable characters. Rich people are fantasy figures; the country's continuing economic woes make them topical, and their sorrows generate vicarious joy.
Equally important, a conflicted conscience makes for good drama. It may be, as Jean Renoir once said, that the hell of life is that everyone has his or her reasons. But it's those reasons that make questionable characters intriguing, nuanced and something more than animals. It's what separates Bruce Wayne from Bruce the Shark.
"Why is the public so interested in movies about the wealthy?" said Nicholas Jarecki, whose debut narrative feature, "Arbitrage," stars Richard Gere as a compromised commodities trader scrambling to save his fortune and his family. "My answer is that Shakespeare wrote about kings. That's where the action is. And it's the classic cathartic thing. You get to indulge in a lifestyle you're not part of, a tragic error leads to a downfall, and you get to say, 'Thank God I'm not him.'"
Creating really interesting ne'er-do-wells, and giving them currency, also hinges on "the scope of the villainy," said the director David Cronenberg, whose current drama, "Cosmopolis," adapted from the novel by Don DeLillo, follows an unconscionably wealthy Wall Street trader on a trip to a haircut, or hell, depending on one's point of view.
"I think it's a matter of reach," Cronenberg said by phone from Toronto. "For example, I watched 'The Killing,' the American version, on TV, and there's a lot of politics to it, and the mayor of Seattle is corrupt and all that. But even if he is corrupt, how far does the corruption reach? Not that far.
"But when you think of Bernie Madoff, he was operating on a global scale. It's monumental. So I think, in a way, unless you're talking about the president of the United States or people very high up in the government or the Pentagon, financial villainy has a much more dangerous scope."
He compared the dynamics to a superhero movie: "You need a guy who wants to destroy the world. Just destroy a city? That's nothing. From a storytelling point of view it's far more dramatic."
Rich people getting their comeuppance has been a standard conceit since the Great Depression. For every wacky, likable heiress in a '30s screwball comedy ("It Happened One Night," "My Man Godfrey," "Bringing Up Baby"), there was a Frank Capra-esque villain, usually played by Edward Arnold ("Meet John Doe"), fuming with pure evil. The prime moneyed malefactor of yore is probably Mr. Potter in "It's a Wonderful Life," who since 1946 has personified the warped soul of the well-financed.
The main characters of "Arbitrage" and "Cosmopolis" fit into a newer tradition of far squishier protagonists. See "Boiler Room" from 2000, "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" (2010), "Margin Call" from last year and even the current documentary "The Queen of Versailles," Lauren Greenfield's film about a fabulously wealthy family laid low, in which schadenfreude plays a major factor.
And yet fictional heroes need redeeming qualities, which is why Cronenberg wanted Robert Pattinson as the star of his film.
"Quite a few critics have talked about him being icy and all that, but the fact is that even as a vampire he's pretty warm and attractive," Cronenberg said, referring to the actor's "Twilight" role. "I think he's likable, and I wanted that, probably for the same reason they wanted Richard Gere for 'Arbitrage.' "
Gere, reached in East Hampton, N.Y., said the story of Robert Miller, the role he plays, reminded him in part of the Madoff case.
"Robert Miller's not a sociopath," he said, "and Madoff was. But the people around him who were not sociopaths, they're more interesting. The ones who knew, who took the money and said to themselves 'This can't be true,' those are the more interesting people to me." Miller, he said, is one of those people who think of themselves as good guys, as "winners who can never lose."
"Jamie Dimon is more like this guy than Madoff," Gere said, referring to the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, whose company recently had a trading loss of billions of dollars. "Very equipped. Charming. An alpha personality. It's inconceivable to him that he wouldn't win every bet. But the hubris of that, that you're never going to lose, is insane. And how do you fix the mistake that was unthinkable? This movie's not just about finance, but personal failing."
"The lineage of this film is from Sidney Lumet," he said. "It's like a '70s movie, the kind that took on a current subject and so immersed itself in character that it reached another plane. It's rare. It used to be that there were a lot of smart, well-made films like this at the studios, but now it's all in the independent world, where you have to go begging and searching for money."
Jarecki didn't exactly have to beg. The son of the entrepreneur, philanthropist and investor Henry Jarecki and a former commodities trader, Marjorie Heidsieck (and half brother to the filmmakers Andrew and Eugene Jarecki), he got his budget through a group of young private-equity investors, augmented by the money he received from the sale of a script several years ago (for "The Informers," based on a book by Bret Easton Ellis). As is common enough in filmmaking, however, at a point he came up short.
"I needed money," Jarecki said. "I asked my dad. He laughed at me. We were at that point in the conversation where I said, 'I appreciate the lesson, but really need it,' and he said: 'It's not a lesson. I just don't want to invest in this movie.' "