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Review: Arbitrage (2012)

Arbitrage (2012)

Directed by: Nicholas Jarecki

Premise: The president of a hedge fund (Richard Gere) tries to complete the sale of his company to another firm but complications in his personal and professional life threaten the deal.

What Works: Arbitrage is a human drama set amidst the contemporary financial crisis and it is a well-made film about corruption and the moral ambiguities of big business. Richard Gere plays the president of a hedge fund and he spends the film balancing between two subplots: concealing the firm’s money problems in order to complete the sale of his company and distancing himself from an automobile accident that killed his mistress. The film’s portrayal of Gere’s character is fascinating. This man has convinced himself that he can have it all: a wife at home and a mistress on the side, to be a ruthless businessman and a humanitarian, to have a loving family while making all of them employees and partners to his business. In this respect, Arbitrage is similar to The Girlfriend Experience in that it examines a life in which all human relationships are business relationships and what that kind of regard for others does to a person. Gere’s character is compelling because he cannot see the contradiction and earnestly justifies his sins under the umbrella of working for the greater good. That delusion of altruism by compromise is widespread throughout the characters in this film, which makes the story an interesting web of corruption and it offers opportunities for the actors to provide nuanced performances. Brit Marling plays the daughter of Gere’s character and as she uncovers the truth both her conceptions about her father’s character and his business legacy are damaged. Tim Roth is cast as a police detective who is keenly aware of how the upper class skirts the law and his attempts to bring down Gere’s character lead him into unethical conduct while Nate Parker plays a family friend who assists Gere and finds himself in a choice between upholding his word and sacrificing his future. These crisscrossed storylines make Arbitrage a smart movie, one that recognizes the complexities of life.

What Doesn’t: Arbitrage is yet another film that frames the contemporary financial crisis in terms of its impact on privileged and wealthy Wall Street figures. Stories of the financial class are certainly relevant to understanding the crisis and Arbitrage is one of the better examples but after dramatic films like Too Big to Fail, Margin Call, and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and documentaries such as Inside Job, Collapse, and Client 9 the film comes across a little redundant. As a viewer it is hard to come to a coherent judgment about the main character and his actions. That moral ambiguity is integral to the story but by the time the picture is over it is difficult to say what has been affirmed other than the longstanding cliché that money has a corrupting influence. The film also suffers from the incomplete characterization of a love affair between Gere’s character and a young artist played by Laetitia Casta. This kind of relationship is a standard accessory to virtually any movie about a wealthy man and the film does not get much out of their scenes together. The film hints that the relationship goes beyond money and business but there isn’t enough to it. Fortunately this relationship is dispatched early on and pivots the film to better and more interesting territory but this subplot could have made Arbitrage a much stronger picture if it had more substance to it and if the end of the relationship represented a meaningful loss for Gere’s character.

Bottom Line: Arbitrage is an average Wall Street thriller that benefits from some strong performances. As another entry in the field of recession cinema it is not particularly distinguished but it is smart, well made, and reasonably entertaining. 

Episode: #406 (September 23, 2012)