In the Book of Numbers in the Old Testament, Moses warns the children of Israel that if they do not do the Lord’s bidding, “Be sure your sin will find you out.” In the movie Arbitrage, Robert Miller is a man guilty of a multitude of sins, and they all seem to be chasing him down within a few days of his 60th birthday. As played by Richard Gere, Robert is a man of great wealth, power, and talent, but for 100 minutes we watch closely as everything he’s built seems poised to tumble like a house of cards, while his family, his colleagues, and the law begin to uncover his secrets. However, writer/director Nicholas Jarecki seems to be of two minds about his main character -- does he deserve our contempt, or are his intelligence and charm enough to vindicate him?
As Arbitrage opens, we follow Robert Miller through an afternoon of business meetings and TV tapings while we learn the extent of his wealth and power. He is a savvy financier who runs a successful hedge fund, an empire that has made him a billionaire. Robert is also a patron of the arts, a philanthropist, and the father of two grown children -- one of whom, Brooke (Brit Marling), has a keen financial mind and is poised to take over the business someday – and he has a beautiful and loving wife named Ellen (Susan Sarandon). However, beneath the surface his life is governed by deceit: A seemingly foolproof investment in a Russian copper mine has been hobbled by political unrest, and now his fund is $400 million in the hole. Robert has been using creative bookkeeping and a loan from a colleague to cover the debt, and he’s hoping a sale to fellow financial whiz James Mayfield (Graydon Carter) will fill the gaps, pay his debts, and allow him to cash out and move on with his life.
Not all of his secrets are financial, though, and this could be his undoing. Robert is having an affair with Julie (Laetitia Casta), a beautiful artist and gallery owner half his age, and he’s been bankrolling her business while sneaking off to her apartment whenever possible. One night, Robert and Julie are taking a ride in his Mercedes when he briefly falls asleep at the wheel. He loses control and the car flips several times before tumbling to a stop. Robert is able to escape with relatively minor injuries, but Julie is killed, and as he runs from the scene, the car explodes. As he juggles fraud and financial malfeasance, he’s also guilty of vehicular manslaughter, and he struggles to keep his role in the accident a secret while also hiding his affair from the family. Robert ends up involving Jimmy Grant (Nate Parker), the son of Robert’s former chauffeur, in his cover-up, but Jimmy’s checkered past attracts the attention of overzealous police detective Michael Bryer (Tim Roth), who is convinced someone is not telling the whole story about Julie’s death.
A cursory reading of Arbitrage’s story suggests that Robert Miller is a thoroughly despicable human being, but he’s able to persuade the world otherwise thanks to his looks, his charm, and his good works. Unfortunately, Jarecki seems to have fallen for Robert’s ruse; the film often pulls its punches, refusing to twist the knife when Robert is at his worst, even as Richard Gere seems willing to dive headfirst into the character’s venality. Lying to practically anyone who matters to him as he wallows in duplicity and smothers his guilt in the name of survival, Gere doesn’t give Robert a remarkable amount of depth, but he certainly plays his damaged, agonized soul for all it’s worth, even as the movie views him from a coolly removed distance. In fact, cool distance is the card Jarecki plays most of the time, and it often serves him well, undercutting Tim Roth’s tendency to overplay as Bryer and meshing with Brit Marling’s understated but effective performance as Brooke. But while Susan Sarandon (whose fine turn as Ellen merits more screen time) and Stuart Margolin (in excellent form as Robert’s lawyer) bring some emotional warmth to the film, much of the time Arbitrage seems hesitant to get its hands dirty with the human impact of Robert’s actions, and it slowly builds to a payoff that never arrives.
Despite this, Jarecki’s first dramatic feature is smart, well-crafted, and entertaining, and for the most part, he draws good work from a talented cast and has a sharp eye for the beauty and mystery of New York City. But Robert Miller is a character who seems to richly deserve his comeuppance within Arbitrage’s first ten minutes, and the fact that Jarecki seems hesitant to dish it out prevents this film from being a full success. leave a comment --Mark Deming