As Arbitrage opens, hedge fund manager Robert Miller has it all. He's being interviewed about his successful investment career, he's headed back from a meeting to arrange the merger of his company with a major British bank (whose head is played by Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, no less) and he heads home for a birthday celebration, surrounded by his family in a setting that reflects warmth.
But we learn quickly that things are not the way they seem. Robert heads off to see his mistress, a young French woman for whom he's bought an art gallery. The merger is not progressing as it should, and we discover he's had to take a $400 million loan to cover a bad investment in Russian copper mines. And then, late for the opening of a show at the gallery, Robert takes his mistress for a drive upstate, falls asleep, and crashes the car. She is dead, and he needs not to be involved. He finds a pay phone, and calls James, the son of his former driver, who owes him for the way he helped the family, and him with his own criminal charges, and gets picked up. He gets home, with bruises and maybe internal injuries, at 4:30 in the morning. The police, suspicious of the crash scene, soon track him down, and the pressures start to mount.
Written by first-time director Nicholas Jarecki, Arbitrage could be looked at as an indictment of the rich, or of the system that rewards betting against people (Miller made a killing forecasting the collapse of the housing bubble). But Jarecki is not following in the footsteps of his documentarian brothers Andrew (Capturing the Friedmans) and Eugene (Why We Fight); he already did that with his first feature, the doc The Outsider. At times the film recalls an older era of financial excess, reminding me of Wall Street or Bonfire Of The Vanities, but despite the fraud and the accidental death you cannot escape, this film is far more about the character himself, and about the way an audience cannot resist taking the side of a handsome hero who has the odds stacked against him, even when he is guilty, and even when he is revealed almost soulless underneath his charm.
He's lucky, in this sense, to have Richard Gere in the lead. Gere's always been underrated—his Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor for this film was his fourth nomination for a Globe (he won, oddly enough unless you recall it's the Golden Globes, for Chicago), but he's never been nominated for an Oscar or a Bafta mask. Perhaps it's because of his looks, or the slightly ingratiating way he plays nice. In fact, there's a lot of Edward Lewis from Pretty Woman, in Miller at the start. But what Gere brings out are the same qualities that made his performances in American Gigolo and Internal Affairs so powerful—a combination of self-absorbed interest and ruthlessness under the surface. It's his real strength--conveying a reality different from the handsome surface that suggests likeablility, either the blankness of American Gigolo or the true venom of Internal Affairs.
There are moments when some feeling shows through, and because this is a thriller, he is allowed a triumph. After all, his first instinct, overcome, was to call 911 after the crash. He is about to turn himself in, and save James (a nice performance from Nate Parker) from jail for obstruction, when he has an idea which throws a monkey-wrench into the evidence the police have cooked against him. He realises his deal is being held up simply to lower the price, so he forces the issue, makes a deal he can life with, and guarantees his childrens' jobs. It's win-win.
And then, the one base he hasn't covered comes back to bite him in the neck. His wife (Susan Sarandon) who cannot forget the way he brought his affair nearly into the house, but who even more cannot forgive the way he treated their daughter. It's a neat twist, because the very family values he was trying to protect prove his downfall.
But the movie ends at a charity gala, his wife's work, where his daughter introduces him as her 'mentor, friend, and father'. He has lost everything, but everyone is smiling. The charity is the Robert Miller Oncology Center. It is as if he is a cancer himself.
Arbitrage (2012 US 2013 UK) written and directed by Nicholas Jarecki, is on DVD release