Film Review: Arbitrage (2012)

At one point in Nicholas Jarecki’s film Arbitrage Richard Gere’s hedge fund big wig, Robert Miller, is asked if he honestly thinks money is going to solve the problems he has created for himself, to which he responds, “What else is there?” The line is spoken with a beautiful air of genuine, nuanced incredulity and is indicative of Gere’s complex, layered performance which dominates the film. This line and scene are also a clear indicator of the film’s success at exploring its central character’s morally ambiguous psyche. However, the film’s police procedural aspects – which also constitute a significant portion of Arbitrage’s running time – are ultimately less successful.

Gere’s Robert Miller is a man who appears to have it all. He is an insanely wealthy hedge fund magnate with a seemingly idyllic family life. His daughter Brooke, played by Brit Marling, works loyally at his side, while his wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon) projects nothing but unabashed adoration. However, Miller (evoking instant parallels to the Wall Street types whose recklessness destroyed a world economy) is a classic case of a self-saboteur. On both a professional and personal level Miller has overstretched himself. He has resorted to fraud to compensate for a series of risky investments, and is struggling to keep an extra-marital affair from the attention of his family. When a freak accident draws him into the attentions of the law – personified here by a burly, bearded Tim Roth – both parts of Miller’s life are threatened. He must go to great lengths, even jeopardizing the life of an innocent associate named Jimmy (played by Nate Parker), to keep his carefully guarded life from falling apart.

Arbitrage is a remarkably assured feature-length debut, albeit one with fairly modest ambitions. One of the films biggest and most obvious assets is the strong thematic content of its script and the unpredictable complexity in the way it builds the characterization of its main character. The film directly addresses the epic ramifications that can be generated by one act of moral negligence. It possesses a tightly wound intensity and never allows for its obtuse, financial industry background to usurp the power intrinsic to the story’s moral questions.

Jarecki’s script also creates multifaceted characters for his talented cast to engage with, although most of the family dynamics of Miller clan are fairly chilly and emotionally uninvolving. Marling, while initially looking like little more than Barbie doll, establishes a very potent and very credible sense of gravitas, which is appropriate for the daughter of a financial titan such as Robert Miller. Sarandon however has less to do, and Jarecki doesn’t spend any time in establishing her character until the film’s final scenes. Yet, once the director finally gets around to her Sarandon doesn’t disappoint. Jarecki is still able to imbue a new layer into her character, showing that Ellen is a woman perfectly suited for her high-class and high powered environment. She also knows how to play hardball when the appropriate situation calls for it.

With the character of Jimmy the film is less successful. The character comes off as one-note and a bit too sanctimonious to be believable. This is not the fault of Parker’s performance, which is committed and intensely delivered. Jarecki’s writing here is marred by the character of Jimmey being obviously set up as the story’s moral center. The film doesn’t need this type of preachy moralizing and its inclusion counteracts the film’s great, ambivalent examination of Miller’s murky behavior.

Then there is Richard Gere himself, who is a long way from his days as the simple innocent from American Gigalo or the stoic masculinity he brought out in Days of Heaven. Gere is perfectly cast here; his Miller being a pitch-perfect symbol of a world closed off from other classes by wealth. Gere’s natural charisma, which has often come off as simple movie star mugging in past roles, actually compliments the character of Miller. It obfuscates the audience’s ability to know if they should support or demonize the character.

It’s a shame that Jarecki’s direction isn’t quite on the same level of his writing. It would have been interesting for the film to remain more focused on profiling the powerful, intriguing way that Gere’s Miller perceives his world. Instead the film devotes a lot of time to Roth’s (who nibbles a bit on the scenery here) investigation of Miller, which feels fairly routine aside from  Jarecki highlighting Roth’s central motivation being animosity for the rich. This wouldn’t really be an issue aside from the fact that it provokes Roth into a pattern of behavior that is just frankly unbelievable.

Because of this focus on the police procedural, Jarecki’s film is unable to speak with any real conviction about subject matter exterior to the parameters of its story. Thus, despite Gere’s powerful characterization of Miller, the film does not have the ability to stand as some sort of zeitgeist summation of a certain time, place, or mentality. It’s just an elegant little thriller and there’s nothing wrong with that. Arbitrage is a consistently engaging look at a man who has everything, until he suddenly doesn’t.

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