“Arbitrage” demonstrates that at sixty-two years old, Richard Gere is at the top of his acting game, possibly in line for an Oscar nomination. The movie follows the problems of hedge fund manager Robert Miller, who will doubtless bring to mind the infamous Bernie Madoff. Though some of the financial wheeling and dealing may mystify viewers—as it did Madoff’s investors—the dramatic tension generated by Miller’s trying to save his company and his hide should engage them.
The story starts as Miller descends from the clouds in a private jet and boards a limo to get home to his penthouse in time to blow out the candles on his 60th birthday cake. Then, after quoting Mark Twain and telling his family that they are his most important accomplishment, the handsome billionaire is off for his second cake at the apartment of his mistress, Julia (Laetitia Castro). These first two scenes set the theme of duplicity that plays out in the remainder.
Robert’s biggest lie—at least in financial terms—involves his hiding the fact that he has gambled and lost half of his company’s cash reserves when he speculated on a Russian copper mine. To cover himself from a certain accusation of fraud and twenty years in prison, Robert has to move fast. We watch him scramble and stall for time to disguise the loss of $412 million from his daughter, Brooke (Brit Marling), his firm’s chief financial officer, and from his wife, Ellen (Susan Sarandon).
In return for a lavish lifestyle and generous charity gifts, Ellen has overlooked Robert’s serial infidelities. But when one of the women in his life is killed in a car crash, the fabric of lies Robert has woven begins to unravel. An unlikely accomplice in his final deception, the son of his former chauffeur (played convincingly by Nate Parker), becomes the focus of a police investigation led by a scruffy Manhattan detective (Tim Roth). The cop knows that Miller is guilty of manslaughter but lacks the evidence to nail a conviction down, obliging him to bend the law himself.
In short, there are very few good guys (or gals) in this story, with the possible exception of Brook, whose confrontation with her father is one the film’s best moments. But even she is drawn into an uneasy complicity by the story’s final deal. In this negotiation, Robert comes off as both a winner and—if the “family values” he spouts are in fact his own—a big loser.
Robert’s trying to hold it together as both halves of his life come apart, his barely controlled rage and frustration fuel Gere’s layered portrayal of a titan of finance brought to confront his crimes. In their too rare scenes together, Sarandon matches him, but she is all ice to his fire, focus to his flailing. For Robert, money is God; for Ellen, family is the bottom line. The principle of “doing the right thing” underpins the story, right down to its ironic finale.
“Arbitrage” is rated “R” primarily for language and a scene of casual drug use. I’m guessing that teens will not go for it or to it, in any case. But director/screenwriter Nicholas Jarecki, considerably aided by Yorick Le Saux’s understated cinematography and Cliff Martinez’s original music, has crafted a serious, ultimately realistic look at the prices we all pay when the pursuit of money consumes us.