By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
Intelligently tense and absorbing, director Nicholas Jarecki’s “Arbitrage” is about Robert Miller, an arbitrageur. That’s fancy for fancy businessman, the guys who got all the boos and hisses when the Great Recession hit a few years back. But Mr. Miller is no ordinary Wall Street profiteer spouting his lame, trickle down rationale. Rather, he is a great man.
But heed, that’s great with a lowercase g….not capital G, as in Abe Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt or his fifth cousin, FDR. Meaning Mr. Miller, smartly portrayed by Richard Gere, has great abilities, though not necessarily dedicated to the commonweal. You knew him in high school, causing you to wonder from whence came his uncanny acumen.
But if you’re jealous of such modern Olympian gods, take heart. Whether poetically fair or just a function of an arbitrary cosmos, the great and mighty get into trouble, too. A snazzy gamble in progress could put Bob up the river for a few years. It’s but one of several puzzles the high-priced financier will share with you as his odyssey evolves.
But gosh, it seems so impossible, that this undaunted, steely general of the money wars, he who hurtles from takeover victory to venture capital glory in private jet and Maybach, might meet his Waterloo. He kind of grows on us. Maybe because he makes no excuses…no baloney about how he’s serving a crucial need. He is an enigma in progress.
Forever flirting with disaster, like the alcoholic who must drink, the gambler who must wager, or the glutton who must ingest, he is like an aberrant Columbus of the financial world, speculating himself immune from the perilous edge that so tantalizes his being. For starters, he’s borrowed $412 million to cover a gaffe, and the IRS is sniffing around.
Added to the potential tragedy of any scheme he might have hatched, as in most complex tales, also figure on the wiles of pure chance plopping themselves into the scenario. In this case, it’s a fatal car accident, with our self-made tycoon at the scene. That’s never a good place to be if one is trying to sell his hedge fund empire in order to cover its losses.
So yes, Mrs. Popper, celebrated grammar school substitute teacher that you were, indeed it was edifying when you iterated Sir Walter Scott’s, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive!” Doubtless, little Robert Miller wasn’t in class that day. Though, I have a feeling it wouldn’t have made much of a difference to him.
He relates differently, both to people and ideas. To call him antisocial is a simplification. His relationships are carefully calculated and planned, emotion being kept in abeyance like a very rare wine or a cherished secret, saved for some very precious event in some
anticipated, undefined future. In the meantime, he says the right things at the right time.
That includes his tête-à-tête with Detective Michael Bryer (Tim Roth) when the savvy gumshoe comes calling; fatherly chats with his daughter, Brooke (Brit Marling), a pretty chip off the old financial block; carefully worded questions to his clever lawyer (Stuart Margolin); and some edgy negotiations with his deceased chauffeur’s son (Nate Parker).
All very nicely played, they can’t help but become embroiled in Mr. Miller’s fight for survival as push comes to shove and it looks like his hubris is about to meet its reward. And it’s here where the viewer will be asked to unconsciously make a judgment. Technically, the move he has made is illegal. Yet, somehow we don’t find him immoral.
Indeed, as the proverbial walls come crashing in on the Wall Street wunderkind who just turned sixty in the opening scene, it seems we’d be the last ones to abandon him, uncertain why, but confident there are redeeming factors forthcoming. Big shot or not, he feels superior not to his fellow man, but to the system he’s able to finagle and finesse.
So it’s rather certain which voting lever he’ll be pulling in November…if he’s not in jail. We find ourselves in guilty commiseration. After all, we’ve had the gauzy nightmare he’s living… trying to shun the equivocations lurking in the cloudy gray between right and wrong…facing our mortality and praying for a vindicating epiphany. Or is that just me?
But even if you choose not to ethically err on the side of Richard Gere’s astutely realized wheeler-dealer, the dramatic shaping of his persona as the modern bastardization of an Achilles is erudite and telling of the times. Good direction, fine acting and a caustically uncompromised perspective make “Arbitrage” a blue chip moviegoing investment.
“Arbitrage,” rated R, is a Lionsgate release directed by Nicholas Jarecki and stars Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon and Tim Roth. Running time: 100 minutes