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by Peter Sobczynski

"Oh My God, It's A Mirage. . ."
3 stars

"Arbitrage" is a film that tells a story that feels, as the saying goes, as if it were torn from today's headlines. Alas, based on the disappointingly superficial nature of the the enterprise, it appears as though those headlines were taken straight from "USA Today." It contains an intriguing premise and a strong cast but both wind up getting sacrificed along the way as the film devolves into an unholy blend of the screen version of "The Bonfire of the Vanities" and an exceptionally torpid episode of a "Law & Order" clone. What makes it even more frustrating is that it does contain some elements here and there that actually do work well enough to suggest that it might actually straighten itself out at some point and become the taut, compelling and complex contemporary drama that it clearly wishes that it was.

Richard Gere stars as Robert Miller, a slick financial wizard who, on the surface, seems to have it all, both professionally and personally. The hedge fund operation that he manages is wildly successful and has made him an enormously wealthy man. On the home front, he has a loving wife (Susan Sarandon) who is always by his side for the numerous charity fund-raisers that they participate in and an adoring daughter (Brit Marling) who works for him and whom he is grooming to take over the business when he retires. He even has a top-flight mistress on the side in the form of a gorgeous French artist (Laetitia Casta) whose work he is quietly funding. However, beyond the lavish facade, things are beginning to unravel in Robert's life. Far from being the picture of financial stability, Robert has had to secretly borrow over $400 million from the company to cover some reckless betting in the stock market and is now desperately trying to sell his company and walk away before his scheme is exposed, a process that becomes exponentially more difficult when the deal runs into a series of snags and his daughter begins to discover that some things about the company's finances literally are not adding up and that she is the one who will be left holding the bag if her worst fears are confirmed Outside the office, the mistress is growing increasingly tired of being the other woman and wants Robert to choose once and for all between her or his wife. As for his wife, it is suggested that she knows that there is another woman and is even willing to accept the arrangement for the time being but that if push comes to shove, she will not go quietly.

All this would be more than enough for any overly leveraged Master of the Universe to handle but things come to a head for Robert when (Spoiler Alert!) he goes out with Julie for a late-night drive in the country, falls asleep behind the wheel and causes a crash that leaves her dead and extremely crispy. Robert manages to walk away from the accident but just as he is about to call 911, he realizes what his involvement will do to both the sale of his company and his marriage and stops, choosing instead to call the son (Nate Parker) of his family's former chauffeur to come out and pick him up Unfortunately for him, his acumen in the boardroom does not fully translate into the real world and he leaves just enough clues to put the cop (Tim Roth) investigating the incident to consider him a suspect even though he admittedly cannot prove as of yet that Robert was involved. Nevertheless, with Robert being increasingly on edge as his house of cards is on the brink of spectacular collapse, his need to succeed at all costs leads him to consider using the kid who helped him (who, perhaps not coincidentally, appears to be the only African-American that he knows) as a sacrificial lamb who could take the blame in exchange for a hefty payout down the line. Eventually, even Robert becomes appalled with his willingness to bend/break the rules in regards to both the deal for his company and the criminal investigation but the question becomes whether he will ever become appalled enough with himself to finally come clean about everything and accept whatever he may have coming and whether it will make any difference in the end if he does.

With its admittedly juicy blend of sex, death and high finance, "Arbitrage" at times feels like the cinematic equivalent of an especially lurid article from an issue of "Vanity Fair" (and the presence of that magazine's editor, Graydon Carter, in a supporting role only highlights that feeling) and writer-director Nicholas Jarecki (who previously made the fascinating James Toback documentary "The Outsider" and who is making his feature debut here) does an excellent job of setting the scene by offering up a central character who we know is a complete rotter right from the get-go and then depicting him in such a seductive manner that we can't help but find him fascinating despite his deplorable behavior in regards to his personal and professional lives. The trouble is that after the intriguing opening scenes, this character eventually becomes little more than a pawn in a narrative that is little more than a rehash of certain elements of "The Bonfire of the Vanities" without the distinctive authorial voice that Tom Wolfe brought to the brilliant original book or the corrosive social satire that Brian De Palma brought to the best scenes of the admittedly uneven and largely misbegotten 1990 screen version. All the moral and ethical questions raised in the beginning are largely shunted aside as the film goes on and more and more time is dedicated to the increasingly uninteresting police investigation that concludes with the kind of twist that will leave viewers more annoyed than anything else.

While "Arbitrage" is a largely unsuccessful film as a whole, it is not entirely uninteresting and contains just enough strong elements so that it always seems as though it is on the cusp of turning itself around even though it never quite makes it in that regard. The main thing that it has going for it is a strong performance from Richard Gere in the lead role. Here is an actor whose career has consisted of more than its fair share of ups, downs and "What the hell was he thinking of?" moments but when he is right for a part, as he is here, he can be absolutely electrifying. Off the top of my head, I cannot think of another actor who can unflinchingly embrace the most repellent aspects of a character and still make him compelling and even maybe a little sympathetic without ever diluting his loathsomeness. Here, he is playing a complete and utter bastard whose existence is presumably removed from that of most audience members and he still manages to find a basic humanity that everyone can relate to while still behaving like a monster throughout. There are also strong supporting turns from Sarandon and Marling, both of whom get big confrontation scenes with Gere that really stand out, and Tim Roth does some good work as well even though his character is stuck with some of the film's least interesting scenes and plot developments.

These individual ingredients are effective and indeed, "Arbitrage" has enough of them so that if you happen to come across a clip or two from it on the tube or online, they might be enough to convince you that it might be worth checking out. Alas, much like the books of its central character, the film never quite adds up the way that you might hope that it would. Maybe the real problem is that after a decade or so of increasingly lunatic real-life stories of financial chicanery featuring the likes of Enron, Bernie Madoff and banks Too Big to Fail, a merely fictional story has to work overtime to compare with the jaw-dropping tales of greed and avarice supplied by the news in the financial pages. "Arbitrage" tries and it does have some good things going for it but when compared by those rich narratives, it can't help but feel like small change by comparison.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=23276&reviewer=389
originally posted: 09/13/12 21:59:18
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2012 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

7/04/13 mr.mike Gere is aces in tight thriller marred by a somewhat "deus ex-machina" ending. 4 stars
2/10/13 Mami2jcn Gere was convincing 3 stars
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  14-Sep-2012 (R)
  DVD: 21-Dec-2012


  DVD: 18-Dec-2012

Directed by
  Nicholas Jarecki

Written by
  Nicholas Jarecki

  Richard Gere
  Susan Sarandon
  Tim Roth
  Brit Marling
  Nate Parker

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