Richard Gere has built a long career out of playing a very specific type of role: men who are successful and corrupted by power but with enough latent virtue to be worth rooting for (see “Pretty Woman,” “Chicago,” “Primal Fear” for examples). “Arbitrage,” the muddled new thriller from first-time writer/director Nicholas Jarecki, gets the first part right but is ultimately less than it could have been because it presents us with a protagonist who challenges our sympathies at every turn.
Gere plays Robert Miller, a hedge-fund manager who, when we meet him, is walking several tightropes at once. He has recently lost $400 million of company money on a bad gamble and is trying to sell the company before anyone – particularly his daughter, who works for him and has found some discrepancies on the balance sheet – notices the missing funds. Meanwhile, his affair with a young, French art dealer takes a tragic turn, and he is left covering up his tracks, while a persistent NYPD detective (Tim Roth) pursues the truth.
Jarecki competently builds the tension as the walls start closing in on Miller, but the film suffers from a basic failure to provide a suitable audience entry point to the story. It is certainly not Miller. Despite the efforts of Gere, who has quietly been churning out solid if unspectacular lead performances like this one for three decades, this character is never sympathetic to us. His motives are understandable – he is in a legitimate bind, caught between saving himself and his company – but his is not a fall from grace, more like the last step down into the final level of personal hell. We never sense that anything is important to him, other than protecting himself and his personal assets. Even his love of family is exposed to be false. When his daughter confronts him with evidence of his financial misdeeds, he puts her in her place.
And so any pretense that Miller cares about his family is put to rest. It’s hard to make a film work with a protagonist who behaves so badly – but it’s not impossible. Paul Thomas Anderson pulled it off, for example, with “There Will Be Blood.” But this film’s fatal flaw is that it packages a villainous character inside a conventional narrative. When we see a charismatic leading man chased by a corrupt cop, we instinctively root for him. Decades of watching movies have conditioned us to feel this way. But when our protagonist is a self-serving, fraudulent philanderer (and worse), the film put his flaws and misdeeds onto the audience. And it makes for a tense, unpleasant viewing experience.
Maybe that’s what Jarecki is aiming for. The world he portrays is a cold one and undeserving of redemption, the kind in which a police detective who knows his subject is guilty tampers with evidence to catch him. But “Arbitrage” does not tell us anything new about this world. The characters and their relationships seem to come from central casting: the French art dealer mistress; the good-hearted wife who has made compromises to support the lifestyle she has grown accustomed to; the grizzled police detective who will do anything to catch his man. But in film, truth is found in specificity, and these characters have none. Only Tim Roth as the detective is able to wring human truth out of his character. Among a cast of celebrated actors, his is a stand-out performance.
Despite these basic problems, “Arbitrage” is not a bad film – just the wrong film for this time. The public perception of high finance has been changed dramatically in the last five years. Movies like “Margin Call,” “Inside Job,” and HBO’s “Too Big to Fail” have documented the systemic corruption in the investment banking world. So “Arbitrage,” which never succeeds in tying Miller’s individual failure to a systemic one, feels out of step with contemporary views of the world of finance, and the fraud it portrays feels rather small in comparison. There is palpable lack of urgency running through this film. It’s not that this story is not worth the telling; it just seems like an arbitrary time to tell it.
My Rating: Put it on Your Queue