Straddling the line between celebration and vilification of its nasty protagonist, Arbitrage plunges into the world of corporate fraud with chilly detachment. Writer/director Nicholas Jarecki’s film begins with Robert (Richard Gere)—the president of a lucrative investment firm—deep in crisis, having secretly borrowed $412 million to hide losses from an ongoing audit and to keep alive his firm’s sale to a rival. A man comfortable begging for more time on his loan to cover up his crimes (which would land him in jail for upwards of twenty years) and then going home to his family to celebrate his birthday, Robert is a wheeler-dealer without scruples. This extends to fidelity, as Robert ditches wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon) not long after the birthday candles have been blown out to see his art dealer mistress, Julie (Laetitia Casta). If trouble in the boardroom has Robert increasingly anxious, trouble with Julie has him equally strained, as his repeated failures to commit and to see her as scheduled lead to tensions that Robert eventually tries to diffuse with a drive to the country. This leads to tragic consequences when he falls asleep at the wheel, flips the car, and Julie dies, compelling Robert to flee the scene with the help of his former chauffeur’s son, Jimmy (Nate Parker).
Threatened with incarceration, Robert gets pro-active, working to clear Jimmy from any suspicion once detective Bryer (Tim Roth) begins snooping around, as well as struggling to have the audit finished and to get a meeting with the buyer so the firm’s sale can be completed and he might pay back the many investors he owes. Jarecki dramatizes Robert’s shady maneuvering with remoteness, visually highlighting the gilded spaces inhabited by Robert and his brood—including daughter Brooke (Brit Marling), who also serves as his Chief Investment Officer—without ever succumbing to fawning, so that the glittery high rises, opulent apartments and limousine interiors feel like cold, nasty arenas where bad behavior is accepted as the norm. That said, while Jarecki shows no particular love for Robert or his milieu, and makes sure to contrast it with the everyday urban home of Jimmy, the writer/director also refuses to pedantically condemn as well. Instead, he seems content to operate at a distance, as if he were watching a fascinating, deadly species under glass. None of those characters prove as nasty as Robert, whose defensive claims that his actions are intended to protect his innocent employees and relatives sound like the self-justifications of a fundamentally greedy cretin.
And yet, Arbitrage doesn’t intend for its audience to loathe Robert; on the contrary, in Gere’s capable hands, the businessman comes off as someone who, though drowning in quicksand due to his own failings, is as charming and impressively cunning as he is abhorrently selfish. Gere vacillates between rampaging rants and winning smiles with the grace of an old professional schooled in the art of deception and gamesmanship. As the police close in on Robert and Jimmy, Gere captures a sense of not only his chracter’s anything-goes personal and professional ethos, but also the way in which he’s deluded himself into believing his own hot air. The result is a portrait that gets at what Jarecki sees as the heart of a corporate immorality driven by avarice and allowed to flourish courtesy of wrongdoers’ charisma, stature and power—not to mention the presence of so many other likeminded businesspeople. Less convincingly, the film suggests that even little people like Jimmy have something to gain from allowing Robert and his ilk to perpetuate their scams. A subplot involving Brooke discovering that dad’s books are cooked adds even more melodrama to the proceedings, all in order to set up a somewhat preposterous finale predicated on an unprincipled person’s unbelievable motivations, but that misstep doesn’t lessen the sting of Arbitrage’s moral, which concludes with a ballroom standing ovation in which everyone present seems to deserve little more than boos.
Director: Nicholas Jarecki
Writer: Nicholas Jarecki
Starring: Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Tim Roth, Brit Marling
Release Date: Sept. 14, 2012