We’ve had a lot of Wall Street bad-guy movies in the four years since the financial meltdown, and “Arbitrage,” while not the best, isn’t the worst either. It’s a relatively entertaining tale of life at the tippy-top and what happens when a “one-percenter” has a really, really bad day. An attractive big-name cast and glamorous settings enhance what might otherwise seem like a good “Law and Order” episode.
Richard Gere plays Robert Miller, the head of a trading firm that is on the cusp of being sold to a major bank. Miller has a chic, charity-supporting wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon), a beautiful, brainy daughter (Brit Marling) who is his chief investment officer, and a son. He also has a high-strung French artist mistress (Laetitia Casta), who we meet when he sneaks out of his sixtieth birthday party to see her. Nothing unusual so far; pretty much what we’d expect from a movie about a financial tycoon and his inevitable downfall.
There’s an ordinary-folks contingent, too, always a necessity in these stories. In “Arbitrage,” those characters are a young black man and a tough-talking detective. Tim Roth plays Detective Michael Bryer with the overly emphatic sneer that seems permanently affixed to him these days. But then, he’s just a working stiff, which means he bears the burden of representing the ethical man in this corrupt world.
At times, it feels as if writer/director Nicholas Jarecki wanted to create a more complex moral universe than is usually found in American movies about the very rich. Miller is charming and caring in his own way. He genuinely wants his family to be comfortable and his girlfriend to be happy. Or maybe he wants them to believe that’s what he wants. He’s a salesman, after all. He convinces people of his interest in their well-being all the time. But Jarecki never presents Miller in anything but a flattering light. Whatever he does or says, he and the world he lives in are so glamorous, so seductive, that we can’t help but identify.
We want to live there, too. That’s true of almost all these films; they capture, intentionally or not, our ambivalence about financiers and their large lives. We know they’re careless and arrogant and wrongly convinced of their own righteousness, but they’re so very, very rich.
Miller’s first revealed problem is business-related: he’s cooked his books to make them look legit for the upcoming sale and he needs to make good before anyone finds out. His second problem happens relatively early in the film so it doesn’t seem like cheating to tell: his girlfriend dies in an automobile crash when he falls asleep while driving upstate. Miraculously, Miller walks away from the accident and then has to figure out what to do. Any connection with the accident will scuttle the deal and that would bring the whole house of cards down. In his machinations he involves the young black man Jimmy (Nate Parker), the son of his former driver, and that’s when things get more Law-and-Order-ish. That formula requires the rich be corrupt and unhappy while the poor remain loyal and loving, despite their hardships. At one point, Miller actually says, “They’re not like us,” while speaking about his certainty that Jimmy won’t betray him.
Jarecki’s script sticks close to the formula, deviating only slightly. To his credit, Miller never seems particularly unhappy or tormented. He enjoys the benefits of his wealth, along with the prestige it brings. Although the ins and outs of the plot are smoothly paced, they are never really surprising, so there’s not much suspense. Richard Gere is always fun to watch, and his acting isn’t bad either. The other actors deliver, and there’s an amusing cameo by Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, a magazine that’s very much a part of this world.
Stern and sardonic Detective Bryer may be the better man, but for some reason, he looks like he’s having much less fun than Richard Miller. That’s the real point of this film.