“Greed is good.” That’s the powerful catchphrase from 1987’s excess-consumerism tale “Wall Street,” and it seems apropos for “Arbitrage,” the latest financial drama in the zeitgeist. The writing-directing debut of Nicholas Jarecki (one of three filmmaking brothers who have been brought up in the world of commodity trading and philanthropy), this taut, involving, and intelligently crafted thriller has such a sleek, silky surface but gets out of the shallow end with enough takeaway and substance to mull over. Above all, it’s an adult human story, even if that human is of the filthy-rich one-percent.
Robert Miller (Richard Gere), a billionaire hedge-fund tycoon, seems to be on top of the world. He has his face on the cover of Forbes Magazine. He has a lovely, loving wife, Ellen (Susan Sarandon), and two adult children, one of whom, Brooke (Brit Marling), is his firm’s CFO and business heir. On the night of his 60th birthday, his family throws him a party, where he delivers a very business-like speech. Just when we think he’s a compassionate family man, he slips out to go to “the office,” but is actually going to indulge in a double life with his high-maintenance French lover, Julie (Laetitia Casta), an art gallerist whom he pays for her gallery show and loft apartment. When the couple goes on a nightly drive to run away to the country, Robert falls asleep at the wheel and the car tumbles. Injured but alive, he slinks away from the accident and doesn’t report it. His lawyer, Syd (Stuart Margolin), tells him to “confess immediately,” but it’s not much later that a pesky cop, Detective Bryer (Tim Roth), starts sniffing around. Then, adding to the stress, Robert is trying to sell his venture capital empire, hiding a $400 million debt from his investors and Brooke, who on her own finds the missing funds in the company’s books. Not being able to keep up his lies, Robert gets in way over his head. Can money, money, money fix everything?
While last year’s equally tense but more insular “Margin Call” kept a chilly distance from its Wall Street suits, “Arbitrage” gives us one man to identify with. Jarecki takes a gamble, but even when Robert is disgustingly rich and morally sinful, we’re still rooting for this guy to get away with it all, or at least remain on edge to see if he can. Plus, it’s just fun watching him squirm when he’s alone. Of course, what makes for more interesting conflict: a perfect, morally sound man that comes clean about his fraud and a possible involuntary manslaughter, or a rich, cheating man that tries covering it all up? The key is casting the magnetic Gere. An underestimated actor since the late 1970s, Gere has never won an Academy Award, let alone been nominated, but his work as Robert Miller will hopefully change that. Without breaking a sweat, he’s just right playing a quietly under-pressure smooth operator; it’s hard to think of another actor (not even Michael Douglas, as juicy as he was playing anti-hero Gordon Gekko) who could straddle ingratiating and despicable. Like Robert juggling his two lives, Gere grippingly pulls off the juggling of a cool, charming surface and his duplicitous true colors.
Headed by Gere, the film also stands as a killer showcase for its rich supporting cast. Sarandon is superb in a complexly etched role, as Robert’s dutiful wife, who knows more about the stranger sleeping next to her than she first lets on. Marling is every bit captivating, even standing alongside Gere and Sarandon, as a brilliant young woman who’s crushed to realize she’s more business partner than daughter to Robert. Even if these two strong women deserve more scenes that what they’re given, they completely sell their separate showdowns with Gere, both frought with authentic rage and broken trust. Nate Parker is the film’s dark horse, coming off really strong as a sympathetic Harlem kid, Jimmy, whose father once was Robert’s limo driver and gets Robert out of a jam; he ends up taking the heat for Robert’s crime. As the dogged cop, English character actor Roth has a lot of fun and adds city flavor with his gruff, street-wise Noo Yawk accent. As bonuses, Whit Stillman veteran Chris Eigeman keeps showing up as Robert’s right-hand man, and Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter even seems to be enjoying himself as a buyer.
Jarecki’s layered, albeit tightly structured, script treads through old-money territory, that of a greedy businessman having everything go his way until he doesn’t, but it looks, sounds, and acts like more than just another melodramatic primetime drama. The stakes are high enough with Robert that we didn’t really need the half-fatal car accident or a potboiler twist involving Detective Bryer’s fabrications of the investigation. The dialogue is punchy and sophisticated, too. When Jimmy tells Robert that he hopes to open an Applebee’s with his girlfriend, Robert egotistically responds with, “What’s an Applebee’s?” Or, when Robert says, “The world is cold,” and Ellen jibes back with, “Then you’re gonna need a warm coat.” Shooting New York City as the cold, dog-eat-dog real world, Yorick Le Saux’s handsome, polished lensing also matches the refined, luxurious lifestyle of Robert and his family. Composer Cliff Martinez’s synth-heavy score (similar to his work in “Drive”) also seduces us into Jarecki’s low-simmer pacing. Truth be told, the direction and overall craftsmanship is so accomplished that no one would ever know it was Jarecki’s first feature behind the camera.
In the end, when it’s time for the posh gala to honor Robert Miller, we expect a conventional comeuppance. Instead, Robert maintains righteous appearances, standing up at the podium in front of an adoring, applauding crowd as he accepts his award. Unbeknownst to them, he has made other people, including his own flesh and blood, crestfallen by his shady truths and complicit in his own crimes. Filled with conflict but keeping his placid cool and his squinty eyes open, Robert faces his illusion. He may never change, but “Arbitrage” allows us to buy and feel his tragedy. Greedy bastards are hard to like, but Gere makes it work.
100 min., rated R.
Grade: B +