‘Arbitrage’ skillfully reiterates the corruptive effects of wealth but fails to entertain
Directed by Nicholas Jarecki
Screenplay by Nicholas Jarecki
2012, USA / Poland
Filled with adulterous sex, betrayal and bribery Arbitrage along with its all star cast should not fail to entertain as it does. All the flash associated with it doesn’t produce a film that’s outrageous or compelling enough to keep the audience from thinking they haven’t seen this story before. An account of the corruption and the debaucherous behavior that possession of a vast fortune facilitates, Arbitrage doesn’t illuminate anything new to say about human weakness.
Much like Mad Men’s Don Draper, Robert Miller (Richard Gere) has constructed for himself a precarious game of balancing the different lives he leads. In one life he is a devoted family man who has hoisted himself from nothing to financial glory as a hedge fund manager atop a seemingly ever growing empire. In the other he keeps a mistress in a secret apartment and feels an ominous rumble of doom from the shady deals he has had to make to secure his wealth. It’s a life that can’t be maintained forever. Crisis stemming from the sudden twists in his fortune only ruffle his feathers a bit until he can figure out who next to sacrifice for his gain. He feels completely justified in any decision he makes. Disturbing as that is, it’s nothing that greedy Gordon Gekko of Wall Street, the cut throat characters from Margin Call or the real life sociopathic CEOs of banks portrayed in HBO’s Too Big to Fail haven’t touched upon already.
The writing of Arbitrage clearly plays off the ideas and events brought to the public’s attention with the infamous Bernie Madoff ponzi scheme. Like Madoff, Miller is a man who lies to everyone no matter what the cost down the road. Miller has lost sight of what anything beyond appearances and prosperity mean. The side characters offer glimpses of morality but are also compromised by the money that Miller has amassed. The film is to be commended on how straightforward it is about what most people would chose for themselves in the face of exposing the truth at great personal risk or taking money in return for silence. As competent as the acting of the well known ensemble is- it’s a disservice to the abilities of Susan Sarandon as Miller’s wife and Brit Marling (of Another Earth) as his daughter that they aren’t put together in the same scenes as much as would benefit the tension of the film. Instead we often see them by themselves occupying the empty, glossy living spaces of their lives that have been built on lies. The skyscraper offices, award parties, treadmills, expensive cars, Manhattan apartments, designer clothing and fancy dinners bog down our time. Showcasing the perks of the lifestyle lends to character motivation but detracts from the time that should have been given to the nitty gritty of confrontation. The hushed tones of covered up shame amongst the family are disquieting but not enough to stop Arbitrage from suffocating itself with a fixation on the external.
We concentrate extremely hard on just one man who operates his private life just like his business- sweeping everything dirty under the carpet in the hopes that no one will ever look. But with all this money will he really be in trouble if someone does? The even keeled direction of Nicholas Jarecki reinforces the serenity the security of Miller’s money gives him. This is fine until it is too often reflected upon. Time spent with him could have more gainfully gone to Marling or Nate Parker who plays a poor young man who has everything to lose by associating with Miller. Gere, whose career has often profited by his silvery charm, is disarmingly right in the role of Miller- a man always calculating his next move. He slithers between lies. The Gere charm that has won over audiences for decades is taken to an entirely sick level here in Miller’s ability to twist people’s ethics. The dynamics of scenes negotiating his future through money create the most interesting scenes of the movie. The issue is never if he will do the right thing or confess but what monetary price he will he go to in order to keep his misdeeds away from public scrutiny.
In Arbitrage, hardly anyone retains their scruples and the bad guys aren’t racked with guilt. It’s a frustratingly honest drama that would have played out better if a few of the characters had put up more of a fight. This failure to confront deflates the dramatic momentum and seals its fate as a forgettable one note film.
– Lane Scarberry