Arbitrage Review


Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage takes the 2008 financial crisis and puts a conspiracy thriller twist on it. It’s unique in that the story is told from the point of view of a man who, in 95 percent of films, would unequivocally be labeled a villain. Richard Gere’s Robert Miller definitely isn’t one of these men, but his actions and attitudes are also far from heroic. We want Miller to sail through his awfully sticky predicament, but the only clear reason why he earns our sympathy and loyalty is because Jarecki’s camera follows him from start to finish. These awkward shades of gray not only define one of the year’s slickest characters, but also make Arbitrage such a compelling film to watch.

When the film begins, we get a glimpse of a Robert Miller who’s on top of the world. It’s his birthday, and his family—including wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon) and protégé/daughter Brooke (Brit Marling)—has gathered to celebrate. A hedge fund manager, Robert has just agreed to sell his wildly successful company to get out of the business for good. And, perhaps best of all, his mistress, Julie (Laetitia Casta), is smoking hot.

Robert’s most important rule of business is to always maintain the appearance of great success. If you look like a billionaire, you’ll be treated like a billionaire. This comes in handy because Robert’s finances are fucked seven ways to Sunday. He needs to make the deal final—to make sure his kids are protected—before he can right the ship. But matters become much worse when he finds himself at the center of a criminal investigation completely unrelated to the fraud his company is committing. Detective Michael Bryer (Tim Roth) is lusting to bring Miller down, and both men’s futures depend on a 23-year-old kid, Jimmy (Nate Parker), with priors and a life of his own to worry about.

Arbitrage‘s swerve is a big one. It defines the film as something more than a fictional take on the Bernie Madoff scandal, and while one could argue the plausibility of one obviously smart man’s monumental problems all coming to a head as neatly and tidily as they do here, Jarecki tells the story with minimal fussiness and flourish. He isn’t afraid to comment on his subjects through his direction, but his primary concern is to keep his audience members on the edge of their seats. Mission accomplished.

It isn’t the kind of suspense one routinely gets at the movies. There aren’t any action sequences, chases, or fights in Arbitrage. There’s some intense verbal sparring, yes, but the tension Jarecki generates is almost exclusively situational. There’s something to be said about a protagonist who’s both thoroughly unlikeable and completely unrelatable. It’s hard to know what he’s going to do, where he’s going to go, and to whom he’s going to turn for help, and watching this guy work through all that with us is surprisingly enjoyable.

It helps, of course, when that character is portrayed by an actor on top of his game. Richard Gere hasn’t been this good in years. He’s a familiar and pleasant enough presence that neither his character’s financial crimes nor his adultery are deal breakers toward allying ourselves to him. And he adamantly purports to be more than just a heartless cash machine. His desperation, it seems, is born out fear for familial repercussions. What will it take to shield his wife from indescribable emotional pain? What must he do to ensure his daughter isn’t implicated in his crimes? The answer to both questions, of course, is simple—follow the rules.

Det. Bryer even comments on this over the course of the film. What is it going to take before we stop fooling around and really go after these guys? (He says it quite a bit more crudely, but the sentiment is there.) Miller, though, for all his smarts and ingenuity, doesn’t grasp this concept. He thinks he can throw money and anyone to unstick a sticky situation. In this respect, he’s a bit sad. Gere, it should be said again, carries the day. He’s Arbitrage‘s greatest strength, living up to his director’s tricky challenge.

While Gere excels, the acting around him is oddly flat. Nate Parker (who you might recognize from The Great Debaters or Red Tails) is fine as Jimmy. But the triumvirate of Susan Sarandon, Tim Roth, and Brit Marling is Arbitrage‘s weak link. Sarandon is done a disservice by the film’s screenplay, which is otherwise quite good. Roth, however, carries himself with a lot of strange, nervous energy. His acting style here feels almost improvisational, yet one also gets the sense that he’s trying a little too hard. Marling, meanwhile, is painfully bland as the angelic Brooke (a trait Jarecki hammers home a little bluntly with the actress’ all-white wardrobe).

But because Arbitrage is Robert Miller’s story through and through, these missteps feel pretty minor. By and large, you won’t think much about Arbitrage‘s problems in the moment. It’s not hard to get swept up in this story and lead character, and though it might not be one of the best, most talked-about films of the year, it’s an enjoyable and relatively low-key prestige picture that’s worthy of your time and money.

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