Arbitrage is the kind of fun, slick, juicy entertainment that is immensely satisfying upon viewing. Only after a period of hours do the “wait a minutes” creep in, and you realize that you’ve been had, but enjoyably so. This is a reminder why it’s prudent to sleep on a film before reviewing it. Still, I recommend the film highly to anyone who enjoys the pleasures of glossy entertainment.
Richard Gere stars as Robert Miller, a billionaire venture capitalist. He is what Tom Wolfe called a “master of the universe.” He’s rich, handsome, has a great family, and a beautiful mistress. As the film opens he celebrates his 60th birthday at a party that might have been conceived by Norman Rockwell and Donald Trump’s offspring.
But there are cracks in the facade. Not only does Gere flagrantly cheat on his wife, he’s cooking his books. After taking a bath on an investment in a Russian copper mine, he has borrowed over 400 million from a friend to plug the hole in his account, so his sale to a bank will go through. When the audit is delayed, thus slowing the sale, he starts to scramble. Then he is involved in a criminal incident that would be irresponsible of me to elaborate on.
This takes the film into a different realm, involving a dogged detective (Tim Roth) and a young black man (Nate Parker), the son of Gere’s former limo driver. This tangent, which sort of takes over the movie, is the least interesting thing about it, though it has the fun of an old Colombo episode (a key clue is a photo taken during a toll booth crossing).
What’s most interesting about the film is the character study of Miller, as embodied by Gere. I’ve always thought Gere was an under-appreciated actor. I’m not sure why he hasn’t been taken more seriously; maybe it’s his pretty boy looks. Whatever the reason, he’s never been better than he his here, exposing the inner core of a man who has reached the top but panics when it all starts to unravel. Scenes with his daughter (Brit Marling) and wife (Susan Sarandon) reveal the black heart behind the expensive suits.
Of course, one could say that it would be impossible for a man to keep those closest to him in the dark for such a long period. The scene in which his daughter realizes what he really is is heartbreaking (Marling is very fine in the role), but one could also say, if she’s so smart, what took her so long? Sarandon’s aria is better, because she basically knew who he was, but looked the other way as long as it suited her needs.
The film was written and directed by Nicholas Jarecki, his debut,but he has film in his genes, as he is the brother of directors Eugene and Andrew Jarecki (the latter also co-founded Moviefone). Also, a shout out to Stuart Margolin, who I hadn’t seen in ages and might have thought dead. He was a familiar face on ’70s TV, particularly on The Rockford Files, and turns up here in a sly performance as Gere’s attorney.
The film is also fun because it plays like an extended “Ask the Ethicist” column from the New York Times Magazine. There are a lot of, “What would you do” moments that could engage hours of conversation. Loyalty, integrity and honesty all take a beating in this film, and you may want to take a shower afterward. Not everyone receives justice in this film, just like real life, but the ending, which I found picture perfect, indicates that everyone got his just desserts.
My grade for Arbitrage: B+.