‘Arbitrage’: Living with your choices

September 13, 2012

“Family – it’s what really matters,” says Robert Miller (Richard Gere), or words to that effect, to a gathering in his posh Fifth Avenue townhouse that includes his wife (Susan Sarandon), grown children, grandchildren and friends, who have assembled to celebrate his 60th birthday.

So, in Nicholas Jarecki’s entertaining, if slightly schematic, “Arbitrage,” it’s only fitting that, in the very next scene, there’s Miller, nuzzling the neck of his French mistress Julie (former Victoria’s Secret model Laetitia Casta).

Message: Nothing is what it seems in this guy’s life. That’s true not only of his personal life but of his professional dealings. Because, as this film starts, Miller is glad-handing people about the imminent sale of his investment firm – when, in fact, the deal is being delayed by the guy who wants to buy it while he runs the numbers one more time.

Even more crucial, Miller needs this deal and fast: His books mask a $400-million shortfall which only the sale can make whole again. Miller, as it turns out, is a juggler, robbing Peter to pay Paul, staying one step ahead of the auditors, his creditors, his family – and, perhaps, himself.

But it all threatens to come crashing down one night. Held up at a business dinner to finalize the sale – a dinner at which the deal never comes to fruition – he’s late to a major gallery opening that Julie is overseeing. To placate his angry mistress, he tells her he’ll take her away – and then sets off with her in his Mercedes. All of the tension has taken its toll, however – and when he dozes at the wheel, his car hits the median and flips, killing Julie.

Miller himself seems to have suffered internal injuries – but he drags himself out of the car, which is upside down on a deserted road in the middle of the night. He abandons the car and the girl and escapes into the woods. He finds a phone booth and makes a call to a young black man, Jimmy (Nate Parker), who comes and picks him up.

Has he left evidence of his presence in the car? Can he be connected to this death? Can he keep it at arms’ length long enough to get his company sold?

That’s the game he must play, running the clock out, even as auditors and investigators threaten to unravel the deal and his life. One cop in particular (Tim Roth) takes an interest in Miller and his “stolen” car, closing in on the truth of the Miller’s situation with unrelenting focus.

Jarecki’s game here is a tricky one. You get caught up in the cat-and-mouse of it all: Miller vs. the cop, Miller vs. his business rivals (and allies, including the daughter – played by Brit Marling – who works for him). Hiding the truth is a tricky game but Miller is an expert player: bold to the point of hubris, even as he quivers at potential consequences should he get caught.

But which is worse? Getting caught or not getting caught? What is the cost to Miller’s soul to evade detection? What part of him disappears if he goes unpunished for his transgressions?

That’s the part of Robert Miller that Gere inhabits so well. He gives the viewer a sense of a man bartering away his humanity in exchange for his freedom; whether he’s making a deal with the devil or with himself, he’s convinced that he can negotiate anything and come out on top. Then what?

Gere has the effortless charm and the suave quality of a captain of business who is used to both being right and getting his way. But he’s also able to unearth the man’s darker urges, the steely reserve that allows him to brazen his way through the situation.

Sarandon has an élan as his wife that isn’t easily broken – but when she opens up on Gere in a closing scene, she’s believable as someone who can leave him speechless. Parker rises to the level of the others’ work, giving Gere – and Roth – as good as he gets. Roth, always a scene-stealer, has a sly charm here – as does Stuart Margolin, as Gere’s long-suffering, truth-telling attorney.

“Arbitrage” is a tale of a man of cold resolve trying to hang on to his humanity while battling his conscience. It’s gripping and provocative and doesn’t go quite where you expect. It may not be as sharp-edged as last year’s “Margin Call,” but it comes close.

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