Posted September 15, 2012 by D. K. Holm
Elements of Arbitrage will seem familiar to many viewers. At the center of the story is a car accident involving a businessman and a mistress that will remind some people of the catalyst moment inBonfire of the Vanities. The tone and look of the film will remind them of other films in the New Sobriety found in films such asMichael Clayton, Shattered Glass, and Margin Call , films with a calm tone and an autumnal look of browns and yellows. And as the lead, Richard Gere will evoke memoirs of his corporate raider in Pretty Woman. Here, though, he is the anti-Edward Lewis, a cunning survivalist who is really cut from the cloth of loophole leaping Vic Mackey in The Shield.
Arbitrage begins with a party and ends with an black tie award ceremony.1 As the often flacid story unfolds, Robert Miller is returning home to his palatial manse to celebrate his birthday. We meet his wife (Susan Sarandon) and glimpse his kids, who include the older Brooke (Brit Marling) who is also his Chief Financial Officer. Miller leaves his own party early to hook up with his mistress (Laetitia Casta) at an art gallery. She is high maintenance, complications ensue, and Ms Casta’s character dies in a one-car accident. Miller decides to flee the scene – probably a good idea, given that the car abruptly blows up as he is walking away. Instead of going to the police, however, Miller calls a fixer (Nate Parker), the son of an old chauffeur, who spirits away the injured Miller. The rest of the tale alternates between Miller bobbing and wearing, eventually successfully, around an investigating cop (Tim Roth) in the shabby Columbo mode, and his own daughter, who has caught on to the fact that Miller is pulling an Enron and falsifying his company’s net worth in order to close a career-saving deal.
This isn’t a film that invites you to identify with its leading character, as some reviews have suggested. Instead, you don’t want Miller to get away with it, nor do you want him to get caught. You’re neutral. You’re an outside observer into the inner world of the super-rich and secretly famous. The director apparently has special familial insight into the world of high finance. Helmer and writer Nicholas Jarecki is brother to two also-filmmaking brothers but seems to come from the sketchy sounding cinematic world of James Toback, about whom he has made a documentary, and produced one of Toback’s own docs, while also compiling the book Breaking In, which profiles 20 young directors and their success stories. Arbitrage is like a medium cool documentary-in-drama-form of the shark-like conscience of the one per cents. It’s a world of limos and private jets, whose inhabitants rarely have to step into a city street – and in fact, when ever MIller is seen on a sidewalk it is usually after a moment of crisis. Gere glides through this world with ease.2 He’s a man who believes in money as the solution to all problems – What else is there but money, he asks one character. His beautiful steel and white hued hair floats with unearned purity above the chaos and greed he creates below it. It’s an excellent performance, one of Gere’s best, and makes Arbitrage watchable even when the film evokes the highest rage. By the time the viewer gets to the awards ceremony, all there is to think of is the last line of Madam Bovary: “And M. Homais was awarded the Legion d’Honeur.”
1 Cinematically, parties and ceremonies are great ways to introduce and exit characters.
2 Manohla Dargis pointed out in her New York Times review that Gere has the best walk in movies.