In Arbitrage, we first see the hedge fund magnet Robert Miller testifying to his success in that insidiously condescending note of faux-humility that Richard Gere can hit like possibly no other actor. In the half-hour that follows, director Nicholas Jarecki’s camera practically salivates over Miller’s luxuries: the expensive birthday party, complete with gorgeous wife (Susan Sarandon) and brilliant and equally gorgeous daughter (Brit Marling); the belts of choice scotch; enviably tailored suits; the obligatory hot mistress (Laetitia Casta) who must, of course, be exotic, as well as some sort of stifled artist (she runs a struggling art gallery, primarily funded by Miller). Miller is clearly in for some kind of major comeuppance, but not before we get our voyeuristic jollies.
The pleasant surprise of the film is that it’s not nearly as hypocritical as you initially assume it will be. There’s a key line of dialogue early on that’s cleverly treated as a throwaway: Miller’s wife says something about moving two million around, and Miller casually, jokingly reminds her of a time when they snagged an all-you-can-eat dinner for three dollars. That’s not merely a character detail, but a nearly subliminal cue: This guy used to be like you.
Arbitrage is so unexpectedly enjoyable because it understands the irony that Miller is operating at his creative peak, that he truly comes alive when committing basically despicable acts that could, and should, be his undoing—an unusual empathy that’s convincingly sold with Gere’s performance. In the beginning of his career, Gere was often self-conscious and dull, but starting somewhere around Internal Affairs, he became a terrific actor, and his confidence and stature really settled in a few years later with Primal Fear. Gere has learned to control the aloof quality that initially kept him from connecting with the audience, as he now uses it to cultivate a pregnant stillness that’s usually a parody of unchecked egotism. Gere uses that stillness to great effect in Arbitrage, but he also brings the surprising warmth that Robert Altman coaxed out of him in Dr. T and the Women.
There are minor disappointments primarily stemming from the moralizing that Jarecki can’t entirely steer clear of. For instance, it’s hard to believe that Miller’s daughter, the heir apparent of a billion dollar corporation, is as naïve as we’re expected to accept, as her shock over her father’s improprieties doesn’t compute. As the detective investigating Miller, Tim Roth is amusing, but he overplays a somewhat slovenly “everyman” in a fashion that’s faintly insulting. But Arbitrage is still a lively and distinctive entertainment, one that has the audacity to summon our sympathy for the (contemporary) devil.
The image isn't terrible, but it's generally soft in a fashion that only appears to be occasionally intentional. In moments such as Robert's visit with his mistress in her loft, the softness of the image is clearly and effectively sustained so as to emit an intimate, sensual glow. In scenes that find Robert prowling the corridors of various offices, streets, and restaurants, the softness robs the images of a crisp tactility that's intended and necessary. Night scenes are a bit of an issue as well, as the blacks are occasionally inky and lacking in dimension. The sound has been mixed with a decent level of detail that's not really that notable, but this film is meant to be ominously hushed anyway.
Writer-director Nicholas Jarecki, only in his early 30s, has already led quite a life. His parents worked in the world depicted in the film, and weathered a number of financial ups and downs. A prodigious hacker, Jarecki was a consultant on the film Hackers, an experience that helped to accelerate his already blossoming interest in filmmaking. Trying to break into that profession, Jarecki penned Breaking In: How 20 Film Directors Got Their Start. He also directed the fascinating, if overly reverent, The Outsider, a portrait of fellow filmmaker James Toback. That's the first seven minutes of the director's audio commentary, and while it can be overly given to name-dropping, it's also an erudite and propulsive listen. After he discloses his résumé, the filmmaker goes on to discuss in encyclopedic detail every decision that went into every choice made in the film. (Example: he listened to 1,100 songs before picking the Billie Holiday tune that'd play prior to a pivotal moment.) Jarecki also covers his working relationship with Gere (who's as exacting as the director), the contacts that helped him with capturing the details of the world of hedge funds, as well as the lighting, other casting decisions, and so on. This is a must for aspiring filmmakers. The featurettes and deleted scenes are forgettable, but the commentary is distinctive enough to earn this Blu-ray high marks for supplemental features.
Arbitrage is a distinctive, well-acted edition to the subgenre of thriller devoted to the American white-collar scumbag.