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Arbitrage is in some ways downright scary. Richard Gere plays a deceitful businessman whose adultery, fraud, and manslaughter are all on their way to ruining his perfect world. Tim Roth makes a great adversary to Gere’s evil genius, but really this is Gere’s show, and it may be the best he’s ever given.
Robert Miller (Richard Gere) is a master deceiver. He conceals a mistress from his family, an almost half-billion-dollar fraud from his associates, and after a tragic car accident, an accidental manslaughter from the law. The “downfall of an arrogant businessman” plot that Arbitrage crafts from these elements is hardly original, but through its unique structure and Gere’s masterful rendering of a conflicted man, Arbitrage becomes a distinctive portrait of today’s Wall Street.
Arbitrage does not cater to its audience, shifting among its three separate but interconnected spheres of deceit at whiplash speed while constantly conveying new information. What holds this borderline unstable structure together is the sheer magnetism of Gere’s performance. Gere plays Miller as a dangerously charismatic man, who moves so fast that he gets away with a scheme before his opponents realize he’s beginning one. It is not easy to portray a man who is almost but not entirely inhuman, yet Gere gives us a man who is both damnable and relatable, displaying in the process a dexterity of acting that I frankly didn't know he was capable of.
Miller’s icy heart is concealed by countless layers of charm and false sentiment. His seeming warmth is his most potent weapon, wielded to exploit his allies and enemies alike. When his wife asks him why they cannot give a "routine" $2 million donation, he smiles, takes her hand, and changes the topic by reminiscing about their days eating cheap pasta as a young, broke couple. In order to escape the scene of his own car crash, he calls Jimmy (Nate Parker), the son of a recently deceased colleague, and begs him in the name of his dead father to come pick him up. Once Miller is safely delivered to his door, Jimmy asks him to call later and let him know he’s okay. “It’s best we don’t talk for a while,” Miller replies, and shuts the car door.
His faith in his indestructibility is his undoing. In his smug confidence, he discounts the abilities of others to see through his lies. His daughter Brooke (blandly played by Brit Marling), soon discovers key discrepancies in the company’s finances. Jimmy is not the unquestioning flunky Miller bargained for, but a nervous ex-con terrified of getting into trouble again. Even Miller’s unquestioning wife (an underused Susan Sarandon) knows more than she lets on.
On the side of the law, Miller gains a worthy opponent in Detective Michael Bryer (Tim Roth). Bryer is just as crafty as Miller, and just as willing to go over the edge to get his way. The difference is that, unlike Miller, there are checks in place to keep Bryer from doing exactly as he pleases. Roth has been starved for meaty roles lately, and this one suits his particular brand of smarmy acuity beautifully, as Bryer and Miller trade quips and insinuations with the speed and accuracy of tennis pros. Gere’s performance holds the film together, but Roth provides a formidable counterpoint that makes this more than a one-man show.
For all the complexities of Miller and Bryer and the morally ambiguous world they inhabit, the secondary characters are disappointingly flat and predictable. Miller’s wife, daughter, mistress, and business associates are actually distracting in their complete lack of personality, as they make the gulf between their lack of development and the subtleties of the central duo all the more obvious. Jimmy is a halfway point, realistically struggling with the decision to keep mum or come forward, but at the same time almost entirely defined by his status as a young African American from Harlem.
Still, the movie would be worth watching even if it were cut down to just Gere’s performance. As his situation worsens, cracks appear in his flawless exterior, slowly extending until they affect each of realm of his deceit and threaten to shatter the entire affair. His ultimate fate is less important than the extreme lengths he is willing to go to in order to maintain his house of lies. Arbitrage explores the falsity of an entire class through the duplicity of a single man. If the reality of Wall Street is anything like Arbitrage, it is chilling to imagine how many Robert Millers exist, and how much they get away with.
The Blu-ray comes with two featurettes, a director’s commentary, and deleted scenes with optional commentary. The “A Glimpse into Arbitrage” featurette is meant as a mini-star vehicle for writer and first-time director Nicholas Jarecki, who has also directed a documentary in the past, but neither he nor the other interviewees seem to consider that a legitimate endeavor. The cast raves about his enthusiasm for the project and his insider’s knowledge of this world, but ultimately they convey little relevant information about the film itself.
“Who is Robert Miller?” is a compilation of cast interviews discussing and dissecting the protagonist. Funnily enough, Gere proves the least astute of the group in articulating what makes his character tick, while Marling, whose own performance is rather dull, has many insightful comments on the main character’s motivations.
It's rare that a director's commentary actually makes you wish he or she would shut up, and yet Jarecki accomplishes that feat. Directing naturally breeds narcissism, but even among directors Jarecki’s comments are egotistical: he cheerfully analyzes every aspect of his own life, from his parents’ lives as traders, to his decision to become a filmmaker (fueled by the desire to boss around Angelina Jolie), to the recent death of his lawyer. He discusses how hot each of his actresses are, and proudly quotes from Aristotle’s Poetics. When he isn't talking about himself, he occasionally has an interesting observation on the film, but a great deal of his nonstop commentary is straight narration of what is happening onscreen. If Jarecki ever reaches his obvious dreams of hitting the big time, he will hopefully look back and see how embarrassing this recording is, and make a more thoughtful, sedate commentary for this otherwise deserving film.
Finally, there is an assortment of deleted scenes. All of these sections were clearly redundant, as they reinforce plot points that are better left with a hint of ambiguity. There is also an optional director’s commentary for the scenes. I honestly don’t know why you would want to listen to more of Jarecki’s blather, unless you’re using him as a case study on egotism.
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