ar·bi·trage (är’b-träzh’) n. The purchase of securities on one market for immediate resale on another market in order to profit from a price discrepancy.
It’s from this practice that Nicholas Jarecki’s new film gains its title, and its protagonist, hedge-fund manager Robert Miller, played by Richard Gere, a career. A billionaire, he rides around Manhattan in chauffeured limousines, has business lunches at expensive restaurants, and has the staff pick up presents for his family: in short, he defines The One Percent.
However, unbeknownst to his family and colleagues, Miller has made a catastrophic investment that has put his company deep in the hole. Borrowing money from an acquaintance in order to survive an audit, he is attempting to sell Miller Investments to a major film whose CEO is not above playing dirty in order to cut the asking price. The title may be seen to refer to the balancing act that Miller is forced to pull, the leveraging and buying out, literal and otherwise, just to keep it all from going under, himself included.
However, the crisis point for Miller comes when he falls asleep at the wheel and flips the car while driving back from a secret rendezvous. His tempestuous French mistress, Julie, passenger in the vehicle, is killed while Miller receives only a collection of superficial injuries. Rather than risk drawing attention to his recent illicit dealings, Miller flees the scene. Jarecki presents the film as more or less a straight thriller as Miller struggles to stop his ordered world from crumbling around him.
Susan Sarandon plays Miller’s pragmatic wife, Ellen, and Brit Marling his daughter and protege, Brooke, whose investigations into an on-the-book $450 million shortfall leads her towards uncovering her father’s deception as the proverbial chickens begin coming home to roost. With Tim Roth making an appearance as dogged NYPD detective, Byer – who has a working-class chip on his shoulder about forcing the wealthy to account – and Nate Parker as Jimmy Grant, Miller’s only black connection, son of a former employee, whom he calls on for a ride and whose loyalty puts him in trouble with the law, it feels, at times, a bit like an episode of Law & Order.
The ethical dilemmas of Miller’s situation are never truly explored. Gere portrays Miller as a talented but amoral professional and a bit of a creep, a man who claims he does what he does out of responsibility whilst simultaneously seeking a way out of the self-admitted “thousand years” jail-time hanging over his head. To this extent, the rest of the cast simply orbit around him, which is a shame given their caliber.
It’s lucky then that Gere’s performance is impressive: he manages to make you sympathize with Miller’s plight, to understand that he is stuck playing a role. Waxing nostalgic to his wife about the $3 all-you-can-eat buffets they enjoyed during the early days of their courtship, it becomes clear that Miller is, for all its luxuries, a victim of his former success. Though its understated nature was always unlikely to garner Oscar buzz, Gere elevates the piece to something more than a by-the-numbers rich-man-done-bad narrative.
There’s a nice moment of ironic justice towards the end as Miller is forced to once more don the mask of the great man that those closest to him have already seen fatally slip. It’s just a shame that, given last years’ Margin Call and real-life stories such as Enron, Arbitrage couldn’t find more to say about the world in which Miller operates.
Arbitrage is a serviceable thriller with a stand-out performance from Gere, perhaps his most compelling since Internal Affairs back in 1990. With more focus on significance and less on incident, it could have been great instead of merely good.