Remember when Greed was Good? Arbitrage feels like a good old 80s movie, right down to its Top Gun-ish score and power couple stars, Richard Gere as hedge fund tycoon Robert Miller and Susan Sarandon as his NYC society wife, Ellen. French actress Laetitia Casta is along for the ride as his eurotrash coke-snorting “gallerist” on the side (is that what they’re calling it these days?) Vanity Fair editor (and Spy alum) Graydon Carter even cameos as a business adversary.
The only thing missing is Adrian Lyne in the director’s chair, but first-timer Nicholas Jarecki has turned in an admirable debut. This modern morality tale has been updated for the post-Madoff/Occupy Wall Street era, and it’s not quite as entertaining and richly saturated as a Lyne treatment of this new epoch would inevitably be, but it nonetheless delivers, in a pulpy way that last year’s smarter Margin Call did not. Think of it as Too Big To Fail, but with less math, glossier set design, and better looking actors — something the 47 percent can relax and enjoy.
Gere’s Miller is the millenial equivalent of Tom Hanks’ Sherman McCoy. Arbitrage hits all the right Bonfire of the Vanities notes — a big crime, a big coverup, and meditations on race, class, and money — it just strikes a defter tone.
The movie kicks off with Miller in the catbird seat; private jets and a birthday celebration quickly establish his Trump-ish dynasty (blonde daughter, dim bulb son), if Trump were less gauche, less of the “short-fingered vulgarian” Spy Magazine delighted in dubbing him throughout the 80s.
But it’s quickly established that it’s largely a straw empire, and he’s in over his head to some very first world loan sharks for $412 million, having hedged Peter to pay Paul. One actually says to him, “Friday morning, I take my money back.” We know that this is a lot of money, because Gere visibly flinches when Sarandon pesters him about how she needs “only” a “routine” $2 million for her hospital fundraiser.
There’s a deal on the table that will fix everything, but the elusive “Mayfield” isn’t showing up for the meetings. Gere is forced to take solace in the arms of his aforementioned mistress, Julie. And faster than you can say Chappaquiddick, things go South.
A spoiler alert isn’t precisely necessary, partly because the trailer spells out the entire plot, and partly because anyone familiar with the fundamental rules of Movie Infidelity knows a few truths:
1. real life husbands would surely know better than to drive around with their girlfriends (they could run out of gas! what if there’s a flat tire? what if the Triple A guys saw Bonfire of the Vanities? there might be bunnies!), but Movie Husbands find this a necessary plot contrivance — if prostitutes never got in cars with Richard Gere, we’d never have Pretty Woman.
2. Nothing ever goes well for anyone once Billie Holiday comes on the stereo in the movies (in real life, hardly anyone listens to Billie Holiday socially — they just say they do — but onscreen, she’s the apparent soundtrack of our lives). “Just one more chance?” Indeed.
And finally, 3. A French Whore’s prospect for longevity isn’t good around Richard Gere characters (see also, Unfaithful).
This sets in motion a thoroughly entertaining horse race. Who will catch Miller first? Will it be Tim Roth as a detective chomping up the scenery and making theatrical pronouncements like “This is a homicide!” (when, in fact, clearly it isn’t, but “this is Tampering!” doesn’t make for good cinema)? Will Susan Sarandon blow the whistle? Surely she knows where the figurative and literal bodies are buried. She clearly delights in their eventual showdown, “I’ve put up with your secretaries, your gallerists…” in a way that suggests she hasn’t been so much long suffering as she has been biding her time. Gere doesn’t win himself any points when he suggests this hasn’t been a marital picnic for him either, as he’s withstood “the drinking, the shopping…” almost spitting out, “the charities,” in a way that makes it clear that’s an obscenity.
Will it be his all-white clad daughter Brooke (Brit Marling)? She seems to be experiencing some confusion about her role in the company (she says “partner,” Dad says “employee.” Dad says “bad bet,” she says “fraud.”) Miller’s chronic explanation to everyone in the movie is an almost Bartleby-esque repetition of “I have responsibilities,” which works well as a framing device, but the scenes with his daughter are also the weakest. There’s no more groan-inducing moments than poor Gere trying to keep a straight face when forced to choke out Master Thespian lines like, “I’m a patriarch. That’s my role, and I have to play it.”
Will it be Graydon Carter who unravels the vulgarians at the gate?
We are relatively certain it will not be Roth who brings the empire down. He whines to the judicial system and anyone who’ll listen that a billionaire shouldn’t be allowed to get away with murder “just because he’s on CNBC,” but Miller isn’t actually guilty of murder, and we know Roth isn’t going to get far, yelling into his cheap cell phone, and being dismissed by Sarandon with a “make an appointment.”
The movie plays on any just-world-theory tendencies an audience might have. Occupy Wall Street might tilt otherwise, but the audience is encouraged to identify with Gere, and his impossibly glorious and obviously God-given silver mane, not Roth’s shabby movie-of-the-week detective.
So maybe it will be Jimmy? Nate Parker plays the son of Miller’s late driver, and serves as a de facto Cleaner when the corporate raider can’t think of anyone else to call in his hour of need, other than the one Harlem kid with a record he knows. The plot pivots around whether or not Jimmy will “do the right thing” (as Roth’s tone-deaf cop repeatedly barks without once winking at the camera). His Jiminy Cricket asks Miller more than once, “you think money’s going to fix this?” and Miller’s consistent response is a variation on his first answer, “what else is there?”
Jimmy has a dream, though. He and his girl want to move to Virginia and open an Applebee’s, and he’s just a rationalization or two away from getting it. Gere gives the best line reading in the entire movie with, “what’s an Applebee’s?”
Although his role is the most thinly written, Parker’s is the most significant in this morality play, and he gives it the full Huck Finn (“all right then, I’ll go to hell”) in his character’s two-word send off that starts with an F, and ends with an It.
The story concludes as it begins, with Miller at the center of the assembled family. But it doesn’t really end so much as it stops, with only Bjork on the soundtrack to tell us how to feel. “I See Who You Are” is not quite “Stand by Your Man” at the end of Crying Game (or even “Strokin’” at the end of Killer Joe), but we get the gist.
Arbitrage is available on itunes.