After a succession of epic films including three hours of watching Cloud Atlas disappear up its own bottom — if you are going to disappear up your own bottom, at least make it snappy — along comes this crisp and confident thriller which demands you only appreciate it for what it is: a crisp and confident thriller.
It’s set in the vastly wealthy world of Bernie Madoff-style hedge funds but, although it could easily have slipped into some kind of essay about money being the root of all evil, or how the rich bastards who crashed the economy keep getting away with murder (perhaps literally, in this instance), this has other things on its mind, like keeping you gripped and entertained. In fact, Arbitrage is so slyly and craftily entertaining even though it probably doesn’t bear close scrutiny — there are more plot holes than you can shake a stick at, should you wish to shake a stick at plot holes — I didn’t much care. It wasn’t epic. It didn’t ask me to ponder the meaning of life. And it’s good.
Written and directed by Nicholas Jarecki, this stars Richard Gere as Robert Miller, a silver fox of an investment titan whom we are introduced to on the eve of his 60th birthday. His life appears gilded, and if you get off on wealth porn, as I do, you’ll find it top-notch. The houses! The cars! The private jet! The suits! The servants! The hospital charity drive needs $2 million? I’ll just write the cheque! He also has a loving family in the form of a wife (Susan Sarandon) and a smart daughter (Brit Marling), who works with him, but we know he is duplicitous when he slips his own birthday party to visit his mistress (Laetitia Casta), a French beauty who feels neglected — ‘But I never zee you, Wobert’ — even though he has set her up as a gallerist and has installed her in an amazing apartment. (Set me up as a gallerist in an amazing apartment, Wobert, and you’ll never hear a squeak of complaint, I promise.)
But it’s not just a mistress he is hiding. He is also on the edge of a precipice, financially, as his company is in a deep, deep hole, and he’s been cooking the books in order to sell it to a potential buyer. If the sale doesn’t go through? He’ll be exposed as a fraud, and reduced to bankruptcy. This is quite a problem, and then another one quickly follows. He decides to take his mistress on a late-night trip to the country, but falls asleep at the wheel, which results in a crash and a fatality, from which he flees. So now he has another crime to cover up, at least until the sale goes through, and even though he has a most determined detective (Tim Roth) on his tail.
Probably, Robert Miller is loathsome. He loves his wife. He loves his kids. He loves his mistress. However, he doesn’t love any of them as much as he loves Robert Miller. Or money. But — and this is why the film is so sly — even though Miller is a moral void, and there is pleasure in watching the screws tighten, you sort of want him to get away with it too. This may have something to do with the ambiguous tone — the film never judges Miller — and also Gere, who is mesmerising. I’ve never previously liked Gere that much. True, if I were a prostitute and he wanted to take me hat shopping on Rodeo Drive, I’d probably go along with it. Heck, I rather think I’d deserve a nice hat by now. But his performances have always struck me as being too laced in self-regard. But here, although he does little on the surface, what he does do — a blink, a snap of his coat collar, a half-smile — absolutely captures the cracks underneath. The weakest links, by far, are Sarandon, who has taken to sleepwalking through roles lately — what’s your problem, Sue? — and Tim Roth, whose New York accent is clunky and whose interpretation of a not-dirty cop who can play dirty, if it’s called for, doesn’t ring especially true.
Like I said, Arbitrage doesn’t bear close scrutiny. Why, when Roth visits Miller’s wife to check Miller’s alibi, and she says she’s busy, make an appointment, doesn’t he make that appointment? Why, after the car crash, doesn’t anyone look to see if one of Miller’s cars is missing? Why isn’t Miller’s housekeeper interviewed? Why don’t I work for Scotland Yard? I don’t know. But this doesn’t pretend to be what it isn’t, and I was always keen to know how Miller would get out of it, if he could. So, a mighty relief, and nicely snappy. Hallelujah.