The 2008 financial crisis came and went, but the Great Recession continues, if not in the statistics kept by government and academic economists, then by everyone else.
Losses in the trillions of dollars here and abroad did little to spur the last or current federal administration to investigate, let alone prosecute the Wall Street investment bankers and hedge fund managers primarily responsible for the financial crisis and the recession, but if the real-world offers few comforts in that regard, writer-director Nicholas Jarecki’s (The Weight, The Outsider) feature-length directorial debut, Arbitrage, offers the thinnest sliver of hope that its central character, Robert Miller (Richard Gere), an all-too-familiar Master of the Universe, will get his comeuppance, legal or otherwise. Unfortunately, the result is a lukewarm, borderline ludicrous melodrama that fails to satisfy on even the most basic of levels or movie-going experiences.
When we meet Miller, all seems right with his world, professionally and personally. His loving family, surrounds him including his wife, Ellen (Susan Sarandon), his daughter, Brooke (Brit Marling), his chief investment officer, and like her father, brilliant with numbers, as well as a lesser son who’ll remain nameless since he’s relatively insignificant in the Arbitrage universe. He also enjoys the carnal company of a much younger woman, Julie Cote (Laetitia Casta), an art dealer and gallery owner. Surface success, however, reveals deeper, potentially life-altering problems for Miller. He made a bad bet to the tune of $400 million dollars, borrowing an equivalent sum from another titan of the industry to cover the shortfall while the government conducts an audit that, if clean and above board, will lead to a buyout of Miller’s investment firm by a friendly rival, James Mayfield (Graydon Carter).
Miller’s precarious situation becomes untenable when he literally falls asleep at the wheel of a car. He flees the accident with the help of a young African-American, Jimmy Grant (Nate Parker), whose father once drove Miller’s limo. In faux-Dostoevsky fashion, a dogged New York City detective, Michael Bryer (Tim Roth), suspects Miller’s involvement and with an axe to grind against the city’s wealthy elite and Miller as a convenient stand-in, pursues an investigation that could lead to the discover of Miller’s accounting fraud, thus scuttling the sale and leading to Miller’s financial ruination. Miller and Bryer engage in a sporadically compelling, often underwhelming cat-and-mouse game.
Miller’s essentially a con artist or grifter in a super-expensive business suit, essentially playing people’s personalities, their dispositions, their fears, desires, and anxieties for personal gain. And when that fails and he’s left without any viable options, he claims he’s sorry, throwing himself, prostrate (metaphorically, not literally) at the feet of whoever holds temporary power or a temporary advantage over him. Once that advantage disappears, Miller’s back at what he supposedly does best, wheeling and dealing, cajoling and bluffing to save himself and, to a lesser extent, his family and company both professionally and personally. That we occasionally root for Miller to succeed has less to do with Jarecki’s script or direction and more with the vicarious thrill of seeing a morally flawed character succeed in the hope, however vain, that a comeuppance will follow.
It’s either that or Gere’s performance. He’s as good here as he’s ever been, projecting or exuding calm reassurance one moment and basic decency or integrity the other, falsely or otherwise. Jarecki tries to play it both ways, making Miller sympathetic (saving his company and family) and non-sympathetic (potentially covering up multiple felonies), but that inevitably leads not to moral ambiguity, but to moral vacuity. And between that moral vacuity and an overly familiar, melodramatic plot, Arbitrage ultimately sinks under the weight of its own unmet expectations and ambitions.
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