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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Arbitrage


ARBITRAGE (Three Stars)
U.S.: Nicholas Jarecki, 2012

Arbitrage is a movie about big money and big crime in America, so naturally it’s set on Wall Street, a district and subculture awash in both. It’s also a picture that demonstrates how we tend to accept  people who do bad things s long as they look good. The case in point here is the movie’s main character,  financier-in-hot-water Robert Miller—as played by the very good-looking Richard Gere.

Gere is expert at these kinds of mixed roles, and he’s often excellent here. Ever since he was a young handsome meanie harassing Diane Keaton in 1977’s Looking For Mr. Goodbar, the actor has been adept at  playing that good/bad attractive/selfish type Paul Newman used to nail (in movies like Hud): a golden boy or handsome dude who can also be  selfish or a scoundrel. In Arbitrage, the movie has some problems, but Gere has the type down pat. He’s a silver-haired fox in Armani suits and he  makes the show work, helps us watch with interest, if not exactly sympathy, a leading character who commits so many misdeeds , lies so shamelessly, exploits so many people close to him, potentially damages so many lives, and. in general, behaves like such a complete crud, that it’s a wonder the audience doesn’t hiss and boo every time he shows up. If this were  a silent movie from the 1910s or ‘20s, they probably would.

Gere’s Miller is a star Wall Street hedge fund operator (I can feel a “boo” welling up already) , whom we watch tip-toeing on the ledge of financial collapse, after losing 400 million dollars in a bad Russian deal and then cooking the books to hide it, while at the same time  trying to avoid criminal charges and a relentless cop named Brier (Tim Roth) who’s investigating the death of Miller’s French  mistress Julie (Laetitia Casta). In addition. he’s trying to finalize the sale of his company to Mayfield  (played by Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter), a canny old investor who’s balking at the deal; avoid disgrace at the hands of his company’s Chief Financial Officer, who also happens to be his own daughter Brooke (Brit Marling); help save his old chauffeur/friend’s son Jimmy (Nate Parker) whom he called for help when Julie died and who now is being charged with the crime; and to keep his ultra-active  and cynical wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon) happy, though he probably hasn’t been faithful to her since Looking For Mr. Goodbar was in release.

And oh yeah…Miller has to help everyone celebrate his 60th birthday. Gere is actually 63, a very sharp-looking 63 at that. It’s those looks, the movie implies, that help keep Miller successful and solvent and out of the clink. They also help keep Gere in movies — which is where he belongs.

Gere gives the best performance in a pretty sterling cast. (It also includes other ace actors like Stuart Margolin as a pithy observer, and Larry Pine and Chris Eigeman as troubled or nervous onlookers.) Arbitrage  is a show very well cast and acted, and, within certain limits, a well-written one — a sleek, mostly clever thriller with sharp, fairly smart dialogue: a show that keeps you on the hooks — even as Miller keeps slithering way from them. I like the way the movie looks, sounds, moves. Arbitrage writer-director Nichols Jarecki — whose father is moneyman Henry Jarecki and whose brothers are moviemakers Andrew (Capturing the Friedmans) and Eugene (Freakonomics) — convinces us that he’s hip to this world, that  he knows these kinds of  people and how they act and react, and gets it fairly right, even when he’s obviously exaggerating for comic or dramatic effect.

Of course, it’s hard to imagine this many outrageous problems, some of them unrelated. raining down on one guy on and around his 60th birthday, much less believing he might be able to finesse all or most of them. But then, that’s why they call them One Per-centers.

Rabid Republicans are always prattling about class warfare in politics and the culture, something they seem to think involves unreasonable prejudice (and rampaging jealousy) of or against the very rich — as if the very rich haven‘t inspired lots of envy and sometimes anger in our popular fictions from time immemorial. Robert Miller manages to embody a lot of those “prejudices” in a couple of days worth of story, and even though Miller was obviously both fictitious and a wild exaggeration, I hated the guy. (I suspect Gere and Jarecki do too.)  But I was also amused by the way he kept dodging bullets, and since most of the other characters are more types than real, and not all that sympathetic either, it’s easier not to get too involved with them.

“Arbitrage,“ by the way, is a financial term that refers to reaping a profit by simultaneously buying and selling something, something that might apply to this movie too — which certainly want to buy and sell us. Movies have so accustomed audiences (especially these days) to the idea that the good guys will be good-looking or attractive, that the bad guys somehow flawed or menacing-looking, as Roth’s persistence detective Bryer is  (he‘s also a little morally shady), that it‘s easy to stay with Miller for a while, especially since what attracts us about him are probably not just his looks but his nimbleness, his shrewdness and resilience in the face of a string of catastrophes. How else could you feel anything too far up from contempt for  a guy who’s set to screw everyone in his company including his daughter the CFO?


As for me I wanted him to suffer, to go down hard, and I felt a little cheated that I couldn’t see it.


Class warfare? Or self-defense? Miller, of course, is someone you can associate with all the Wall Street financial guys in 2008 and 2009 who accepted billions in a bailout to rescue us from their incompetence, and then rewarded themselves with undeserved bonusses and tended to screw everybody else (which is part of the reason I hated Gere’s character):  those sleek, clever, well-dressed, nimble, shrewd and resilient One Per-Centers and foxes in Armani who, like Robert Miller, are adept at buying and selling. Simultaneously. May they rot in whatever hell accepts their credit cards.

One Response to “Wilmington on Movies: Arbitrage”

  1. Breedlove says:

    SPOILER. But he does suffer…his family is broken beyond repair at the end of the movie and you get the strong impression of a man all alone in the world.


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