Though the major character is a high-flying, corner-cutting Wall Street tycoon and a title that suggests a plot centering on his underhanded machinations to save his fortune, Nicholas Jarecki’s “Arbitrage” is really concerned more with domestic turbulence than big-time finance. It’s basically a high-toned soap opera, complete with plot threads involving infidelity, accidental death, father-daughter conflict and police corruption. The slick but shallow movie is entertaining enough on a lowbrow level. But it’s not really what’s advertised, and it certainly doesn’t cut very deep.
Richard Gere, looking like a billion bucks, is Robert Miller, a famously successful hedge fund guru who’s negotiating the sale of his firm to a larger one—a deal that will leave him awash in cash. But to pull off the merger, he’s had to conceal his company’s mountain of debt, something he’s hidden through an infusion of borrowed cash into the ledgers. And he has to complete the transaction quickly, before the lender calls in his loan. Unfortunately, the company’s chief financial officer has noticed the suspicious entries in the books; and even more unfortunately, that sharp-eyed accountant is Miller’s daughter Brooke (Brit Marling), who’s aghast over her father’s duplicity and furious that he’s using her as a dupe.
But Brooke isn’t the only family member Robert is deceiving. He’s cheating on his wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon) with pretty gallery owner Julie Cote (Laetitia Casta), who may be more demanding of his time than his spouse is. While he and his mistress are out on a tense drive one night, they’re in a terrible crash, and Julie is killed. Knowing that reporting the accident would ruin things for him in both bedroom and boardroom, Robert makes it look as though she was alone, and calls an unlikely friend, Jimmy Grant (Nate Parker), the son of his former driver, to spirit him away from the scene. But hard-nosed police detective Michael Bryer (Tim Roth) quickly suspects what the truth is—and middle-class schlub that he is, so determined to bring Miller to justice—that he’s willing to do almost anything, including threatening to ruin poor Grant’s life if need be, and even worse, to secure the millionaire’s arrest.
So “Arbitrage” doesn’t really go into much detail about Miller’s financial shenanigans, or the larger context in which they occur—indeed, if you can balance a checkbook you shouldn’t have any trouble understanding his rather simplistic plan to salvage what he can of his fragile company’s value. Nor will anybody find it difficult to comprehend why it causes a rift with his daughter, or how causing the death of a mistress threatens to unravel both his marriage and his business prospects. The key to the film’s success, therefore, lies not in the decipherment of Robert’s monetary machinations, but whether he’s an attractive enough character to make you care about whether he’ll get away with what he’s done.
That’s where Gere comes in. He’s a known commodity, of course, and he’s asked here to do the same sort of thing that was required of him in 2002’s “Unfaithful”—use his charisma to encourage viewers to be ambivalent about whether the obviously guilty man he’s playing deserves to be punished or not. He does the job skillfully enough—more so than in the earlier film, actually—and fits in well with the rather cynical way in which Jarecki ties everything up. Though not a particularly risky performance, it serves the material effectively. The problem is that in the end the movie asks you to sympathize more with this member of the one percent than with the cop trying to bring him in—who is, after all, as played by Roth, a rather crude fellow whose rule-breaking is somehow portrayed as being worse than Miller’s.
By contrast to Gere, the rest of the cast is underused. Marling, who’s made a considerable mark in her earlier small films, is bland in these richer surroundings, and Sarandon overplays the charity-obsessed wife willing to overlook her hubby’s extracurricular activities for the good life he provides. Roth relies too much on shtick as the gruff cop; we’ve seen this character from him before. And Casta doesn’t provide much apart from fine looks. But Parker gets across some wounded dignity, and there are sharp smaller turns from veterans Stuart Margolin as a lawyer and Bruce Altman as a nervous government official.
Technical credits are excellent, with cinematographer Yorick Le Saux making full use of the NYC locales and editor Douglas Crise speeding over plot holes to conceal their existence, while Cliff Martinez’s score helps to generate the suspense Jarecki’s trying to achieve.
In the end “Arbitrage” offers more suds than smarts, but if you’re willing to settle for a well-groomed soap opera that just uses Wall Street finance as a background without demanding much knowledge of its actual workings, it should hold your interest. But it won’t provide much intellectual profit.