My father used to say his favorite movies were about “rich people at play.” He was a super-nice guy. I like movies where rich people get themselves into a mess of trouble. Arbitrage is such a movie. A string of tribulations, each worse than the other, makes for a sophisticated, gripping thriller.
Hedge fund millionaire Robert Miller (Richard Gere) is the kind of 60-year-old that women swoon over and other men want to punch. He’s way too handsome, with a thicket of silver hair and a closet full of impeccably tailored silk suits. He’s got a silver tongue, too, always coming up with an impressive sound bite. During a TV interview he counts off on his fingers the only five things that people need: M-O-N-E-Y. At his birthday party, he announces to his wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon) and daughter Brook (Brit Marling) that he wants to work less so he can spend more time with his family. A half hour later, he assures his French mistress Julie (Laetitia Casta) that he’s getting a divorce.
To Miller, lies are just hiccups in his conversational style. So what if he lost $400 million of investor money on that copper mine deal in Russia? He’ll fix it. He borrows the sum to improve his company’s bottom line in order to sell it right away. But his annoying friend is demanding the money back pronto. And the elusive buyer, Mr. Mayfield (in a cameo by Grayden Carter, editor of Vanity Fair), is postponing the purchase in a nerve-wracking macho power game. Brook, an officer in Miller’s company, discovers the $400 million discrepancy. She’s shattered to realize what her beloved father has done and fears that he will go to prison.
As if his money troubles aren’t enough, tempestuous Julie is pouting so much that Miller promises they will go away together. They head out of town in her old Mercedes. Miller falls asleep at the wheel and in a fiery crash, Julie is killed. Grief-stricken and injured, Miller flees the scene.
Miller’s next decision is totally unpredictable but maybe brilliant. To get a ride, he calls on a person unlike anyone else in his world. This is Jimmy Grant (Nate Parker), a young black man loyal to Miller for the help the older man gave his dying father. Ellen notices what time her husband sneaks into bed and that he’s a nervous wreck. Like a Mafia wife, Ellen knows not to ask questions — which doesn’t mean she hasn’t acquired a few power tricks herself.
Ambitious detective Michael Bryer (Tim Roth at his sleaziest) figures out it was Miller who was driving the car in which Julie died. Determined to bring the arrogant rich icon down, Bryer is not above manufacturing lies in the name of justice. Too late does he learn that having one privileged criminal in his sight doesn’t mean there’s not another one gunning for him behind his back.
In old-fashioned thriller fashion, Miller finds the noose around him getting tighter and tighter. He’s a despicable guy, but Richard Gere gives him a sympathetic aura that makes you want to root for him, at least a bit. It’s Gere’s most layered, impressive performance in years. He’s absolutely mesmerizing.
Susan Sarandon is equally wonderful. She reveals, to both our pleasure and our shock, that she’s not just an aging trophy wife. This savvy matriarch has learned a thing about arbitrage, how to play two forces against the other and in the fevered buying and selling, make a profit that no one foresees.
Directed by newcomer 25-year-old Nicholas Jarecki, Arbitrage is a surprisingly mature work, flawlessly paced and constantly watchable. The older audience I saw the movie with was eager to be swept away by a good story and stars they recognized. No one seemed to mind they had to pay extremely close attention to catch the subtle clues in the complex tale.