Robert Miller (Richard Gere) is celebrating his 60th birthday at the start of “Arbitrage,” first with his family – including wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon) and daughter/chief financial officer Brooke (Brit Marling) – and then with his mistress, Julie (Laetitia Casta). As the hedge fund manager’s deep financial woes become apparent to us, one wonders if he isn’t wishing while blowing out two cakes’ worth of candles for the ability to convince every character around that he still has the Midas touch.
He’s borrowed a significant amount of money to make everything at least appear to be hunky-dory through an ongoing audit, and he’s struggling to sell his business to anyone willing to take on hundreds of millions of dollars in debt. Miller’s lenders don’t want to wait that long, though, and worse than that, Robert now finds himself covering up his tracks in the wake of a fatal accident with the help of family friend Jimmy (Nate Parker), though that doesn’t stop investigating detective Michael Bryer (Tim Roth) from suspecting that something foul is afoot. Bryer wants his man; in fact, it seems that just about everyone in the upper echelons of Manhattan wants Robert’s head on a plate.
As written and directed by Nicholas Jarecki, brother of documentarians Andrew (“Capturing the Friedmans“) and Eugene (“Why We Fight“) and a documentary filmmaker in his own right (“The Outsider“), “Arbitrage” isn’t a finger-wagging tale of financial fraud along the lines of last year’s “Margin Call” so much as a sturdy plate-spinning drama – to call it a thriller would suggest something a bit more propulsive – in which Miller attempts to keep up appearances in the twilight of his life. Jarecki plays off our natural sympathies well; we know that Miller is a fraud like so many real-life white-collar criminals, we know that Det. Bryer is well-justified in wanting to nab him, and yet our ingrained instincts lean towards wanting the story’s silver-haired anti-hero to actually get away with it scot-free (a feat that too many real-life white-collar criminals seem to pull off for themselves).
Much of the appeal comes from Gere’s softly breathless turn as Miller. From scene to scene, his made man is alternately trusting and flustered, desperate and determined to remedy the various calamities as they pile up, which includes unwittingly spreading the culpability for his crimes to family and friends with every phone call he makes and phony ledger he keeps. Conflicted emotion abounds among the supporting players, and rightfully so: Sarandon grows suspect of her husband’s indiscretions, Roth feels certain of his perp’s misdeeds (and alone attempts a regional accent), Parker is seemingly exploited for being an outlier on Miller’s social circle, while Marling finds herself heartbroken as she uncovers her father’s unscrupulous business practices.
All deliver decent performances, but they mainly serve as foils for Gere’s shady and sad rationalizations for salvaging everything on which he has made his name. He’s clever enough when it comes to keeping any given party at bay, yet generally neglectful of the desires of others, if not ignorant. (When Jimmy admits plans of someday opening an Applebee’s franchise, Robert has to ask what an Applebee’s is.) Instead of a clean-cut portrayal of hand-wringing corporate greed, Gere and Jarecki work to show how motivated the mogul must have been to amass the empire that he has over the course of decades, thus providing a credible rationale for why and how he schemes so thoroughly to keep his interests – family included – from going under.
Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography is suitably slick (though, by necessity, it’s not nearly as luscious as his work on “I Am Love,” another tale of high-class angst), with Cliff Martinez’ score similarly utilitarian in its foreboding tones (though, again, a bit anonymous in the wake of last year’s double-whammy of “Contagion” and “Drive“). As far as Jarecki’s screenplay is concerned, contrivance does indeed flare up, but that’s part of the fun, all the more reason for a fat cat to squirm and sweat over the course of a week in his life and 100 minutes of running time. The stakes proceed to mount in a classically unraveling sense, almost worthy of an old-school noir, but the added timeliness of likeminded deceit only gives the audience cause to root for the man’s undoing, if only as a proxy for off-screen justice.
As implied by the title, Miller effectively spends the majority of the movie shifting assets here, there and everywhere as he struggles to keep things on an even keel, tricking himself into buying the greater-good justification of his actions while he swindles those around and below him. But when one lives as they work, the resulting return of emotional investment is slim at best, which is just the way Jarecki likes it. [B]