Movie review: 'Arbitrage' offers intriguing tale of financial corruption and moral bankruptcy

After Hal 9000 -- the human-like computer in Stanley Kubrick's "2001" -- murders all but one of the spaceship's crew, he reassuringly tells the lone survivor, "Dave, I can see you're really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down, take a stress pill and think things over. I know I've made some very poor decisions recently, but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal."

Hal and his chutzpah are not unlike Robert Miller -- the computer-like human in "Arbitrage." He's a supremely confident hedge-fund tycoon on the verge of completing a last big deal -- the sale of his whole trading empire -- before comfortable retirement. He is played by Richard Gere, looking much like Marcello Mastroianni these days in his silver-fox older age, with a teenager's libido and sex appeal to older and younger ladies alike.


3.5 stars = Very Good
Ratings explained
  • Starring: Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Brit Marling, Nate Parker.
  • Rating: R for language, brief violent images and drug use.

The older lady in his life would be faithful wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon). The younger would be his hot, demanding, volatile mistress Julie (Laetitia Casta). Robert is deliriously in love with her, but she's in a state of coke-snorting rage at his constant lateness, postponement of the promised divorce, and at playing second fiddle in general.

It opens on his birthday dinner with his adoring family at their elegant home, where Robert hails and savors his role as patriarch. No one there is more adoring than daughter Brooke (Brit Marling), who's also the bright and upright chief investment officer of his wildly successful corporation. Brooke is his conscience, to the extent that he has one.

Everyone is blissfully ignorant of his affair. But soon enough, Robert's dubious business dealings and equally dubious dalliance will violently intersect at the worst possible time. And then, as Mother would say, there'll be tears.

Let us pause here, for a moment, to ponder the title term "arbitrage" -- a strange, fascinating, etymologically multifaceted word. Having read some 100 articles on Bernie Madoff, I still couldn't tell you what a Ponzi scheme is. Similarly, I've looked up the definition of arbitrage multiple times over the years and can never remember or sort out its connection to Arbeit (German for work), arbitrary, arbitrate or the nicely neologistic "arbit-rage" -- all of which facets relate to Robert.

Turns out it's from the Latin/French arbitrer (to judge), and as a financial term, it means the simultaneous buying and selling of securities or currencies in one international market for immediate resale in another, in order to profit from price discrepancies and/or different rates of exchange. Try to remember that for your multiple-choice quiz down the line.

For Robert, it means big trouble in the bubble: He urgently needs to do something about an unsecured $400 million shortfall to cover the hedging of a very dangerous bet. With mounting personal and financial pressure from all sides, everything is coming down on him at once. The main thing is to remain confident under all circumstances -- which is his specialty. Faced with the possible pull-out of your buyer? Tell him YOU are pulling out. It's a high-risk bluff of chess-game gambits and poker-game finesse. But Robert's own considerable devices aren't enough. He's forced to turn to an unlikely source for help.

Writer-director Nicholas Jarecki has produced a worthy first feature. Just when we're sure this is a talking-heads melodrama with no physical action, along comes a shockingly violent accident to jolt the whole tone and film into another direction. But it wouldn't work without a superb cast.

The film's pressbook introduces its star with: "Richard Gere is an eminently watchable icon." Damning with faint praise. Or fainting with damn praise. In either case, Mr. Gere's performance epitomizes the Wall Street mogul whose royal-flush house of cards is about to be flushed down the porcelain facility: a master of the smooth lies, excuses and self-destructive mindset that lead powerful men to risk so much for so little.

Ageless Ms. Sarandon is the fine chipper society wife who knows more than she lets on, while Ms. Marling is the perfect dutiful daughter confronting disillusionment. She and her father have a terrific confrontation: "I'm your partner," she says, pleading for the truth. "You're not my partner," he replies, " -- you work for me." When financial push comes to legal shove, blood is no thicker than water.

The cat-and-mouse scenes between Mr. Gere and Tim Roth as a low-key detective tired of big Wall Street guys escaping justice are subtly effective. So is the surprise appearance of Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter (on a bad-hair day) as Robert's reluctant buyer. (Who knew he could act?) But best of all is Nate Parker as the honest black guy Robert puts the squeeze on for help getting out of a Chappaquiddick-like situation. "So you get in a jam, you call the only [N-word] you know?" says Mr. Parker -- quietly and believably, in a haunting portrayal.

If the plot of "Arbitrage" stretches credulity, it is slick and briskly written, with enough forward momentum to propel Robert's efforts to keep his morally and financially bankrupt Titanic afloat and to deliver its social and emotional punches.

At his most desperate point, Mr. Gere proffers a $2 million trust fund for assistance.

"You think money can fix this?" asks Mr. Parker.

"What else is there?" comes the reply.

Opens today at the Manor Theater in Squirrel Hill.


Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris: First Published September 14, 2012 4:00 AM


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