‘Arbitrage’ a sober take on recession-era villains

09/14/2012 8:00 AM

09/14/2012 8:01 AM

We know who and what Robert Miller is the moment Richard Gere brings the character into the frame in the new thriller “Arbitrage.” He’s a player, a business titan, a guy for whom the rules of the normal world don’t apply.

He has his own high-end hedge fund firm, his prominent place within New York society, a socially prominent wife (Susan Sarandon) and a daughter (Brit Marling) who will inherit the business someday.

He’s also living the limo life on the back of shady bookkeeping, and keeping an art dilettante as a mistress. Because he can.

Tom Wolfe famously labeled them “Masters of the Universe,” the Wall Street gamblers whose sense of invincibility, entitlement and general recklessness brought the world’s economy to ruin a few years back. But Gere’s Miller becomes more than a “type” the moment he wrecks the car with the mistress in it, and then runs away.

There’s a crime to cover up as he struggles to keep the balls he’s juggling in the air. And it’s not just about him.

“I have responsibilities,” he says. “People rely on me.”

But is he rich and cunning enough to avoid responsibility for a death he caused, for a company he brought to ruin?

First-time writer-director Nicholas Jarecki (he adapted the Bret Easton Ellis novel “The Informers” for the screen) builds an elaborate, interconnected world for Miller to duck and weave through. His wife may wonder why the check for her favorite charity is late, but since she hasn’t discovered the affair, pulling one over on her could be easy. The smart, business-minded daughter is another matter.

Then, there’s the one person Miller calls for help in the dead of night. Nate Parker plays the outsider, the young black man with a police record whom Miller knows, for reasons that only become clear later. He thinks this guy will be discreet.

And with a cop (Tim Roth) sniffing around the charred remains of the mistress’ car, discretion and a sneaky lawyer (“Rockford Files” vet Stuart Margolin) are paramount in Miller’s mind.

Or would be, if the Feds weren’t investigating his company, if he wasn’t in desperate need of a merger/sale to go through that will redeem him, at least in a financial sense.

There’s so much to keep track of that Jarecki robs his film of some of its punch, even as he is slowly, carefully revealing his cards. But he cast this so perfectly that we can’t help but be riveted.

From Parker’s perplexed blend of obligation and fear over the lies this man expects him to tell, to Sarandon’s raised eyebrow of suspicion, a gesture neatly mirrored by Marling, playing her daughter, “Arbitrage” sells on this story, this concept. The mild-mannered and passive Marling (“Another Earth” and “Sound of My Voice”) becomes the voice of indignation as Miller’s elaborate web starts to unravel.

The ongoing police investigation seems an afterthought, a chance for Roth to do his version of the abrasive, get-his-man-no-matter-what-or-how cop. Still, Roth plays the heck out of his character’s moral outrage: “He does not get to walk just because he’s on CNBC.”

And Gere, ever-equivocating, lets us see the wheels turning in this wheeler-dealer. It’s a fascinating performance that whips us between sympathy and appreciation for the crook who might get away with it, and fury that yes, another member of the “1 percent” might escape blame and punishment for all he’s done to others.

“Arbitrage” doesn’t preach, and lives in a greater world of subtexts than the more overtly messaged, more narrowly focused and more entertaining “Margin Call.” But it’s still an engrossing character portrait and sober take on the culture’s favorite villains in recession-era America.

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