Published Sep 27, 2012Opening up in the opulent home of hedge fund magnate Robert Miller (Richard Gere), Nicholas Jarecki's '90s throwback thriller, Arbitrage, captures the artifice of a birthday celebration with his wife, Ellen (Susan Sarandon), and daughter, Brooke (Brit Marling). Brooke questions her father about his decision to sell their booming empire business, which leads him to reflect upon the nature of aging and the importance of family.
Five minutes later, Robert is sneaking out of the house to meet up with a cocaine-snorting French bimbo artist for a bit of "cake eating," both figuratively and literally. What's more is that Robert is starting to show signs of concern about his impending business deal, having some shaky, inexplicable financial issues, such as the inability to pay for a grandiose charity function for Ellen.
Without any undue subtlety, Jarecki mirrors Robert's shady business dealings with a less than savoury plight involving his vapid cliché of a mistress. His desire to hide his affair matches his need to hide his many deliberate accounting and reporting errors, involving some overseas investments. Being the one-percent — a metaphor certain to titillate modern (urban) political interests — his life is that of presentation and exploitation, using everything and everyone around him as a means to an end for his gain, which is why he brings in the son (Nate Parker) of an old employee to help him clean up his dirty laundry when an accident leaves him in a serious bind.
While the central cat-and-mouse chase between Robert and the Detective (Tim Roth) tasked to investigate the aforementioned accident plays out familiarly and with standard thriller tropes, the dramatic strength comes from Jarecki's candid, surprisingly non-judgmental handling of an inherently vile protagonist. He sets up this smart adult thriller in a traditional manner, only positing a millionaire central character as the underdog, structurally speaking.
This leaves the possible "happy ending" as something unsavoury and undesirable, even though the propulsion suggests it's what we should root for, which is what distinguishes this bit of political fodder from something more prosaic and sanctimonious, like Margin Call.
Arbitrage, despite having the occasional undeveloped character and cheesy line, manages to be an engaging and entertaining movie beyond serving up modern principles. It even manages to squeeze out a solid performance from Gere, who hasn't been up to much of late. (VVS)