Anyone looking for a moral high ground — or any high ground at all — in Arbitrage will be sorely disappointed. And that's only one of the reasons why Nicholas Jarecki's family-and-finances drama, handsomely photographed by Yorick Le Saux, is so appealingly adult.
At a time when filmmakers might be under some pressure to punish the One Percent, Jarecki (who also wrote the script) chooses instead to remind us that making and keeping scads of cash is rarely accomplished by the fainthearted or the foolish.
Robert Miller (Richard Gere) is neither. A Manhattan investment whiz who amassed his billions through sweat and smarts, Robert has a loving, low-maintenance family and a volatile, high-maintenance French mistress (Laetitia Casta).
He also has a $400 million hole in his firm's accounts that requires off-book plugging to finesse a critical audit linked to the pending sale of his company.
And there's more: a nervous creditor wants a loan repaid, his wife (an under-utilized Susan Sarandon) needs a check for one of her many charities ("It's only $2 million!"), and his daughter and CFO (Brit Marling) is sniffing around the cooked books. So much for the film's first 10 minutes.
Unfolding in somber tones and among hard surfaces, Arbitrage has the slickness of new bank notes and the confidence of expensive tailoring. Even when a violent car accident causes Robert's troubles to multiply and the film to drift uneasily into thriller territory, Jarecki holds steady, keeping his pacing attuned to Gere's silver-fox composure.
It's the kind of marvelously contained performance that made the actor so riveting in The Mothman Prophecies and so potent as the betrayed husband in Unfaithful. Always at his best in the eye of the storm, Gere excels at characters who gain our sympathy precisely because it would never occur to them to ask for it.
Neither amoral nor cynical, Robert follows his own code: that of the boardroom and the clubhouse, of deals negotiated in the backs of limos and in sleek hotel rooms. When he tells his daughter, "I'm the patriarch," the term means something to him; the familial responsibilities and buck-stops-here ethic encoded in it are the reasons he takes care of business even if it means ignoring life-threatening injuries. And when he slides around the legal system (personified by Tim Roth as a desperately tenacious detective), it's not bribes that grease his way, but goodwill earned from past kindnesses.
Robert may be entitled and ruthless, but it's the police who stoop to falsifying evidence; he may be serially unfaithful, but it's with his wife's tacit consent. The character is fascinating because Jarecki refuses to judge him (or to make it easy for us to do so), painting a complex personality who's used to the tightrope and doesn't fear the fall.
In Arbitrage, as in life, wealth creates the rules and decides who gets to play the game. "You think money's gonna fix this?" asks an alibi witness when Robert tries to give him a substantial gift. "What else is there?" Robert wonders, and it's a testament both to the writing and the performance that his mystification appears painfully genuine. Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.