A version of this review appeared in The Age, September 27, 2012.
A corporate thriller starring Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon – what is this, 1993? In fact Arbitrage, written and directed by first-timer Nicholas Jarecki, proves to be among the more interesting American films to tackle the global financial crisis, even if it is from the perspective of the one percent. Figuratively speaking, fat cats don't come much fatter than Robert Miller (Gere) a smooth-talking Wall Street billionaire whose personal and professional misdeeds threaten to catch up with him just after his sixtieth birthday. Pursued by a surly cop (Tim Roth, frowning and cocking his head) he has to use all his wiles to close a crucial deal before it's too late.
Aiming to capture the world of the super-rich on a relatively low budget, Arbitrage is an odd mix of the confident and the clumsy. The top French cinematographer Yorick Le Saux gives an aptly glossy look to the boardrooms and apartments, but as a visual storyteller Jarecki is only a beginner. Often he falls back on clumsily spelling out his themes: “I'm a patriarch, it's my role,” Robert tells his formidable daughter (Brit Marling) when she threatens to rebel. Equally, the plotting can feel over-intricate and unsatisfying: Robert spends much of the film fighting two separate battles that are never connected as deftly as one might hope.
Jarecki does, however, have a sharp eye for actors, and has assembled an excellent cast. Sarandon brings a maximum of suggestive ambiguity to the underwritten role of Robert's wife, while Stuart Margolin as a crusty lawyer savours his dialogue like a glass of whisky good to the last drop. The relatively little-known Nate Parker functions persuasively as the film's moral centre, a young man from Harlem who owes a debt to Robert and unwillingly comes to his aid.
Above all the fascination of Arbitrage lies in the deployment of an enduring movie star who has often managed to seem sympathetic and despicable at the same time. Robert may be an unrepentant philanderer and swindler, but he's not seen as mean-spirited or a conscious villain. Rather, Gere plays him as a lifelong salesman, who readily sells himself on the idea that he deserves to get away with everything. Ultimately, he proves so winning in his self-satisfaction you almost want to see him let off the hook – which may say something about how we wound up in the mess we're in today.