In basic definitional terms, my understanding of the title word of Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage is fairly hazy, and the film itself, which takes turns treating its Wall Street specifics with semi-intentional vagueness or over-excited satire, seems just as undecided as to the lengths it wants to take to comprehend the term. But that doesn’t completely diminish the overall involvement factor, which is kept at a consistent pitch throughout thanks to a top-notch Richard Gere performance and a ear for dialogue that is as relishable as it is patently nonsensical. But that’s fine — the movie, perhaps unlike the real-life counterparts to Gere’s Robert Miller, doesn’t need precise logic to work.
As Arbitrage opens, Robert has just turned 60, and he’s in the midst of closing the sale of his monster company — a sale that, in addition to providing him with a fruitful retirement, will also manage to cover up a stew of debt that only Robert and his compulsive greediness know about. Not even Robert’s daughter, Brooke (Brit Marling, electric earlier this year in Sound of My Voice), the company’s CFO, is aware of her father’s misdeeds, though her growing intelligence and crystal-clear conscience will soon clue her in to what’s going on.
Compounding Robert’s professional deadline is a distinctly personal one. He really does seem to care for his family — which, along with the aforementioned Brooke, includes his wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon) — but that doesn’t stop him from engaging in a passionate affair with Julie (Laetitia Casta), whose fledgling career as an artist is kept afloat almost exclusively because of Robert’s financial aid. Nevertheless, Julie is young and needy — and also kind of a fan of cocaine — and she’s fed up with the idea of having to share Robert with Sarandon’s Ellen (who, it turns out, is barely seen enough as it is).
Faced with that ultimatum, Robert impulsively decides to take off with Julie to the countryside. Trouble is, this decision is made in the middle of the morning after a few glasses of whiskey, and that combination, as it so often does, has lethal consequences — Robert crashes the car, Julie dies, and he flees the scene, enlisting the hopefully under-the-radar help of Jimmy Grant (Nate Parker, quite good, in a surprisingly beefy role) to take him home undetected. (Grant, it turns out, is the son of Robert’s former limousine driver, who Robert did a number of monetary favors for.)
From there, the tension begins to reach its peak, because we’re soon introduced to Det. Michael Bryer, a hothead investigator played with sneering, campy intensity by Tim Roth. Bryer is on Robert’s trail from the start, and in one of the film’s best moments, the two men meet each other for the first time, and we savor the excitement of witnessing Gere lie through his teeth, all the while maintaining that composed, handsome, in-control facade that has rarely been exploited as well as it is here. Roth’s poorly mannered detective, on the other hand — reclining on Robert’s couch like a stoned teenager, while the Wall Street tycoon sits up like a king — makes for an entertainingly contrasting adversary.
As a narrative debut — Jarecki previously made the documentary The Outsider — Arbitrage shows off Jarecki’s writerly skills first and foremost. It’s competently made, to be sure, but it’d be a lot less interesting on the whole if the writing didn’t have as much spicy bite. That’s not to say this isn’t astute, complicated storytelling, but Jarecki knows what his endgame is, and that can often be half the battle. He doesn’t overstep his bounds, and he maintains a coolly straightforward agenda, even as the illicit details of Robert’s business dealings float right on over our heads and into thin air.
That may come off like I’m damning Arbitrage with faint praise, but consider how few American films this year — certainly those with names as big as the ones on display here — have been this immune to losing focus. Take, for example, the recent Premium Rush, which a lot of people liked — it’s a modest 90-minute film that unsuccessfully tries to piece together a narrative involving everything from a hilariously psychotic NYPD officer with a gambling habit to an out-of-nowhere immigration subplot. Arbitrage is dealing in simpler strokes, and there’s something very unusual, and very satisfying, about a movie that centers on one thing — in this case, the spectacle of watching Richard Gere trying to remain calm while his life spirals out of control — and never strays from that path.
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