Greed is good, until it isn't anymore, is "Arbitrage," a guilty-pleasure thriller for these tough economic times.
In directing his first feature, writer and documentarian Nicholas Jarecki shows great command of tone — a balance of sex, danger and manipulation with some insiderish business talk and a healthy sprinkling of dark humor to break up the tension. His film is well-cast and strongly acted, and while it couldn't be more relevant, it also recalls the decadence of 1980s Wall Street, shot in 35mm as it is, with a synth-heavy score from composer Cliff Martinez (who wrote similar music for "Drive").
"Arbitrage" is a lurid look at a lavish lifestyle that allows us to cluck disapprovingly while still vicariously enjoying its luxurious trappings.
Richard Gere stars as Robert Miller, a billionaire hedge-fund magnate who, at the film's start, is magnanimously sharing his wisdom in an interview with none other than CNBC's Maria Bartiromo. As he turns 60, Robert would seem to have it all — looks, wealth, a loving family and respect among his peers. And yet he always wants more, and feels emboldened by the different set of rules and morals that seems to apply in his rarefied world.
So he "borrows" $417 million from a fellow tycoon to cover a hole in his portfolio and make his company look as stable as possible as it's about to be acquired by a bank. This is otherwise known as fraud. And despite the loyalty and support of his smart, beautiful wife (Susan Sarandon), he has a hot (and hot-headed) French mistress on the side (former Victoria's Secret model Laetitia Casta) who runs in stylish, hard-partying art circles. (That's another '80s throwback: the blasé coke consumption).
Both these schemes explode in his face over the course of a few fateful days. An audit of his firm has raised some red flags, making the potential buyer turn reluctant and evasive. This prompts the suspicions of his devoted daughter (Brit Marling, every bit Gere's equal), who's also the company's chief financial officer and heir apparent. But more immediately and dramatically, Robert is involved in a deadly accident that puts the police on his tail (Tim Roth plays the lead detective with a wonderfully thick New York accent) and requires him to enlist the help of a kid from Harlem (Nate Parker) who's the son of his late, longtime chauffeur.
That's a lot of plates to keep spinning at once; just the financial storyline alone could have sufficed without the affair messing things up further. What's surprising about "Arbitrage" is that Jarecki never judges this man for the tricky position he's gotten himself into, and never tries to steer our feelings toward him, either. Gere is so charming, so irresistible when he's on top of the world — when he's got all those plates humming in unison — that he kind of makes you root for his character to get away with it all. His smooth, placid demeanor is perfect here, which make the few times he does snap seem that much more startling.
The film's strong women don't quite get enough to do until the third act, when Sarandon and Marling both have powerful showdowns with Gere. But the entire supporting cast is well-chosen, down to the actors who appear in just a couple of scenes, like Stuart Margolin as Robert's dryly funny lawyer and Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter as the head of the bank that's acquiring Robert's company.
Robert may not learn anything by the end, and teetering on the brink of serious trouble doesn't make him a more decent person; actually, he gets nastier and more demanding as the screws tighten.
As Parker's character puts it: "You think money is gonna fix this?" Robert doesn't miss a beat in responding: "What else is there?"
"Arbitrage," from Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions, is rated R for language, brief violent images and drug use. Running time: 100 minutes. Three stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definition for R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.