Dir: Nicholas Jarecki, US, 2012, 100 mins
Review by Derek Parkinson
The ambitions of financial wheeler-dealers have made a juicy target for filmmakers since Gekko’s “Greed is good” mantra of the 1980s. Can Arbitrage deliver a fresh audit of their ruthless pursuit of pleasure and profit?
In one respect the plot sets us on a familiar trajectory: the race against time. Billionaire hedge fund manager Robert Miller (Gere) has miscalculated badly in both his professional and personal life and triggered a countdown to disaster. Can he rescue both before it’s too late? Miller has lied about the returns on his fund and must conceal a multimillion dollar hole in the accounts until a takeover deal is signed. He has lied to the police about a car accident and set a chippy detective, played greasily by Tim Roth, on his trail.
Nothing very unusual about all that. Where Arbitrage tries to say something different is in its treatment of the relationships that supply self-worth for the Big Swinging Dick. From Wall Street to American Psycho, it’s all been male bonding in a hothouse of ambition and status anxiety. In those uber-alpha-male worlds women are just part of the decor, trophies or expensive accessories. Robert Miller, by contrast, seems as careworn by his failing relationships with women as by his pursuit of mega millions. Either absent or late for family occasions, when he ruefully tells his daughter he’d like to be at home more she wonders how they would pass the time. He often lies about where he is and is rarely where he needs to be, an idea the film plays with quite subtly. At points, Miller seems to be losing his grip on who he is as much as where he’s been. Here it’s his relationship with his daughter that anchors him. Although he has a son, she’s the strong and brainy child who seems set to carry on the family business. Conversations with his wife, a typically assured performance from Susan Sarandon, are reduced to banalities, but Miller must reckon with her before long. When that point arrives it’s his daughter’s future that Miller must commit to, not the ailing marriage.
It works effectively enough. Miller’s race to stay ahead of the cops long enough to sign a mega deal delivers tension, while his self-inflicted problems with women add emotional ballast. Where Arbitrage really shines is the strong performance of its main cast. Having struck pay dirt with the awful slop of An Officer and a Gentleman and the frankly repellent Pretty Woman, it would be easy to underestimate Richard Gere as an actor. That would be a mistake, as was demonstrated by Primal Fear, and is shown again here.
Arbitrage delivers engaging flourishes with the supporting acts too, notably Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter as the mysterious Mayfield and Stuart Margolin – familiar to many as Angel Martin in The Rockford Files – as a queasy lawyer. But perhaps most remarkably, Arbitrage is Nicholas Jarecki’s debut as writer and director.