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Up against It

by Ross Douthat

Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage is a movie about serious things: corporate fraud and police corruption, adultery and manslaughter, race and class, the ways that husbands betray wives and fathers betray children. But it’s fundamentally a trifle, a nice little diversion, a chance for audiences to turn back the clock of recent economic history and root, against our better judgment, for the bad guys of high finance to keep the system on its feet.

The bad guy in question is Robert Miller (Richard Gere), a titan of the investment industry who resembles Bernie Madoff if Madoff resembled, well, Richard Gere. A lion in autumn, with a high-society wife (Susan Sarandon) and two golden twentysomething children, he’s poised to sell his investment firm to a bigger conglomerate in what looks like the capstone on a long and profitable career. Only his daughter and CFO (Brit Marling) has any doubts about the transaction: Given how well they’re doing and how much he seems to love the business, why, exactly, does he want to sell?

The answer, it turns out, is that he doesn’t want to sell; he needs to sell, because only the profits from the sale can prevent his house of cards from crashing down. Thanks to his bad investment choices, there’s a $420 million gap in the books, which he’s papered over with a temporary and highly illegal loan from a less-than-friendly old friend. Imagine if Madoff could have made his losses whole (and protected his family in the process) by selling his firm before the market crashed, and you have a sense of the gambit that our anti-hero is attempting.

But before the sale goes through, there’s a further complication: Taking his art-world mistress (Laetitia Casta) to an upstate getaway, Miller flips the car and kills her, and then scrambles away bleeding from the burning wreck. If he turns himself in, the scandal will derail the sale, and if the sale’s derailed he’s ruined along with all his investors . . . and so instead of calling the police, he finds a phone booth and calls the son of his late and loyal black chauffeur to ask for a ride back to Manhattan.

The son complies, the call gets traced, and suddenly a working-class cop (Tim Roth) with a chip on his shoulder is leaning hard on his best chance at a witness, trying to persuade the chauffeur’s kid from Harlem (Nate Parker) to rat out the Manhattan eminence. This forces Gere’s Miller to play multiple hands of poker at once: Relying on his charm and charisma rather than his checkbook, he has to simultaneously keep the one witness to his crime from turning state’s evidence, bluff the conglomerate’s CEO into signing off on the sale, and keep his wife and daughter from realizing that anything has gone amiss.

And the audience roots for him to do it. Watching Arbitrage, I kept thinking of 1999’s better-than-the-original remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, where you pulled for Pierce Brosnan’s billionaire to get the better of Denis Leary’s cop, even though the cop had justice on his side. Arbitrage is much more of a morality play: Whatever happens, you know that Gere’s character is going to have to pay some sort of substantial price for his sins, instead of just jetting off happily into the sunset with Rene Russo, as Crown did. But that knowledge is liberating, in a sense, because the guarantee of some comeuppance licenses the viewer to pull for him to get away with as much as he can for as long as he can.

It helps that, like Crown, Arbitrage is a love letter to a kind of posh fantasy of Manhattan: It’s all gleaming offices and chiaroscuroed apartments, dark wood and old marble, town cars and pinstripes and wise old bearded lawyers. Chris Eigeman, familiar to fans of Whit Stillman’s New York stories, plays Miller’s tight-wound assistant; Graydon Carter of Vanity Fair plays the would-be buyer of his firm; Casta, a former supermodel, smolders briefly as the doomed mistress. Marling, joining the big leagues after writing herself starring roles in a pair of strange art-house movies, doesn’t resemble Gere enough to make the pairing quite convincing, but she has the requisite glamour, and the necessary hint of a chill.

As for Gere, age continues to suit him. This character is a nice marriage between the master-of-the-universe roles of his youth and the slightly more antic, rumpled parts he’s taken lately. Cross his Pretty Woman corporate raider with his turn as the Howard Hughes–forging novelist Clifford Irving in 2006’s The Hoax and you might get someone like Arbitrage’s Miller: a glorious success and a brazen fraud who’s scrambling to keep the two halves of his story from coming into contact with each other.

Of course, this is all a fantasy: In real life, a figure like Bernie Madoff was banal beyond belief, a frugal villain with mediocre taste, not a glamorous and reckless juggler. Nor was there some moment when Madoff could have seen the hammer coming down and made a genius move that saved his investors and his wife and sons from the consequences of their self-deceptions and his lies.

But Arbitrage asks, Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so? And the answer, unexpectedly, turns out to be yes.

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