“Arbitrage” hands Richard Gere the type of role that fits him like a tailored Armani suit. Gere again plays a smooth, wealthy and powerful man who forces the audience to constantly re-evaluate whether they like him. This is a part Gere plays well, and for a while he lifts “Arbitrage” above its lightweight script.
Gere is Robert Miller, a hedge fund manager who is one of Wall Street’s richest wolfs. He is trying to sell his company before anyone discovers it is bankrupt. Robert is running out of time. A friend agreed to essentially park $400 million in the company’s accounts to disguise its lack of funds, but the friend wants his money back, with interest, by Friday.
No one suspects the company is in trouble because Robert is such an accomplished liar, he probably convinces himself. At his 60th birthday party with his wife (Susan Sarandon), children and grandchildren, Robert delivers a moving speech about how family matters most to him. Then he slips out to visit his French mistress (Laetitia Casta).
The mistress will involve Robert in an incident that could jeopardize the sale of his company. To escape the law’s detection, Robert calls on Harlem resident Jimmy (Nate Parker), the son of his former driver. Is Robert setting up this young black man as a patsy, or is he telling the truth when he says he will protect Jimmy?
“Arbitrage” is being billed as a financial thriller, which is usually an oxymoronic term. The plot does generate a fair amount of suspense, although it stems less from Robert’s financial shenanigans than his efforts to stay out of a criminal case. A police detective (Tim Roth) suspects Robert is connected to the French woman, and believes Jimmy will lead him to arresting the tycoon.
Clearly, writer-director Nicholas Jarecki wishes to raise issues of race and class. A rich and powerful white man exploits a middle-class black man to avoid prosecution. It is also noteworthy that Jimmy is the only person Robert knows who doesn’t belong to the One Percent.
Roth’s character complains it is nearly impossible to arrest Wall Street tycoons because they can buy their way above justice. The detective’s frustration leads him to pursue unethical tactics.
Aside from these undercurrents, Jarecki avoids political grandstanding and commentary on the current economy. This story could take place at any time during any administration, and in fact Jarecki seems to be aiming for an ’80s vibe (most obvious when the mistress snorts cocaine through a rolled-up $100 bill).
To show that not everyone on Wall Street is corrupt, Jarecki includes a subplot for Robert’s daughter, Brooke (Brit Marling), an ethical junior partner in his firm. She realizes something is wrong with the company’s books, but believes that someone is defrauding her father. She wouldn’t dream that her father would commit fraud. Not to the tune of $400 million.
As Gere’s wife, Sarandon doesn’t have much to do through most of the movie, and the part seems a waste of her time and talent. But a showy scene near the end, when the wife reveals she’s not as oblivious as her husband thought, justifies the Oscar-winning actress’s participation.
The most fascinating piece of casting has to be Stuart Margolin as Gere’s level-headed attorney. Margolin is best known as James Garner’s flaky conman friend, Angel, on “The Rockford Files.” If you’ve been watching as many “Rockford” episodes on Netflix as I have lately, hearing Margolin speak as this film’s voice of reason and, occasionally, morality is nothing short of surreal.
Once again, this is the type of role Gere excels at, and “Arbitrage” gives him a lot to work with. Robert must continue to project a calm exterior as his situation becomes increasingly desperate on several fronts. Cracks appear, and we see how superficial and venal this man truly is.
“You think money is going to fix this?” someone asks him.
“What else is there?” he replies.
The story, particularly the crime plot, is more simplistic than Jarecki’s grave presentation would suggest. When Roth is on screen, “Arbitrage” often resembles an episode of “Law & Order.” The plot is resolved when Robert hits upon a sudden burst of Hardy Boys ingenuity.
This is Jarecki’s first feature film. He previously directed a documentary, “The Outsider,” about rebel filmmaker James Toback. He concludes “Arbitrage” with a Toback-style moral, that Robert doesn’t need a conscience because no one else in New York has one, either. With one character’s final decision, Jarecki takes that cynical message a soul too far.
“Arbitrage” is not worth a trip to the theater, but it might be worth catching on TV some day you’ve got nothing better to do. Perhaps realizing this, the distributor is making “Arbitrage” available as a video-on-demand selection the same day it is released in theaters. Check your cable or satellite provider for details.
• Jeffrey Westhoff writes movie reviews for the Northwest Herald. Email him at email@example.com.
Rated R for language, brief violent images and drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Who’s in it: Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Tim Roth, Nate Parker
What it’s about: A powerful hedge fund manager (Gere) is trying to sell his company before anyone discovers its accounts are short $400 million. An incident with his mistress could jeopardize that sale.