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Movie Curiosities: Arbitrage

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ar-bi-trage noun [from the Old French word arbitrer, meaning "to render judgment"]: simultaneous purchase and sale of the same or equivalent security in order to profit from price discrepancies --Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary

If you've been keeping up with these blog entries or paying close attention to your local movie listings, then it shouldn't be news that the past couple of weekends have not been kind for cinephiles. The recent wide releases have been godawful and ticket sales are at a record low, but there have been some quiet victories in the past couple of weeks.

First and foremost is The Master, which premiered to a weekend gross of $736,311 on only five screens. That bodes very well for its upcoming wide release this week. There's also a little Mike Birbiglia comedy called Sleepwalk with Me, which has been gathering theaters, box-office dollars, and fantastic word-of-mouth on a slow yet steady basis. Last but not least is Arbitrage, which came in just under the top ten last weekend. That may not sound like much, but a $10,163 per-theater average is nothing to scoff at.

I had initially decided to pass on Arbitrage, mostly because I'm not a fan of Richard Gere. There's also the fact that I had recently reviewed Cosmopolis, a fantastic piece of cinematic art that covers much of the same white-collar thematic ground. However, the film's surprising box-office performance and alarmingly good reviews brought me to take another look. Imagine my shock to find that despite the film's poster, Gere is not the only actor in this film. Indeed, this movie also features the considerable talents of Susan Sarandon and Tim Roth. Finally, when I read that Brit Marling is in this cast, I shouted "Well, why didn't you say so?!" and eagerly bought my ticket.

[Side note: If you don't know who Brit Marling is, go rent Another Earth or read my review of Sound of My Voice. She's seriously one of the best up-and-coming actresses you've never heard of.]

Anyway, Gere plays a billionaire named Robert Miller. He's wealthy, he's handsome, he's smart, he's charismatic... basically, he's the guy Donald Trump thinks he is. Robert owns a multimillion-dollar investment firm, which he's suddenly and inexplicably decided to sell while the company is still making record profits. Ostensibly, Robert is selling because he's just turned 60 and is preparing to retire. In truth, the guy secretly blew over $400 million on a bad investment.

To cover up this loss and keep the company afloat, Robert borrowed the money from a wealthy friend of his. The plan is to sell the company and pass the problem off to someone else. Meanwhile, Robert uses the money from the sale to pay his friend back with interest. It's a great plan, except that the prospective buyer (name of Mayfield, played by Graydon Carter) is taking his sweet time signing the contract for whatever reason.

Then there's Robert's family. He's married to Ellen Miller (Susan Sarandon), a wife as loving, intelligent, and beautiful as any man could hope for. They have two kids, Brooke (Brit Marling) and Peter (Austin Lysy), both of whom occupy high-level positions in Robert's company. The guy has a great family and a wonderful home life, so of course he has a ton of affairs on the side. His current mistress is Julie Cote (Laetitia Casta), a young French artist with a cocaine habit whom Robert invested some money in.

I admit that this film took a long time to grow on me, mostly because I couldn't get a handle on the main character. Gere certainly didn't play the character as slimy, but his actions were completely unsympathetic. When his wealthy friend starts demanding the loaned money back, was I supposed to side with Robert? When Julie started breaking off the affair, was I supposed to feel sorry? I honestly couldn't tell who I was supposed to root for or what the film was trying to say, mostly because nothing of any apparent consequence was happening.

But then the car crash happened.

Bang on cue at the end of the first act, the plot to this movie finally got underway. Robert goes out driving with Julie and accidentally totals her car. Robert survives with some injury, but his mistress is killed on impact. Naturally, he can't call 911 or he jeopardizes the business deal. So he instead calls an old acquaintance (Jimmy Grant, played by Nate Parker) to get a discreet ride home. And at long last, this movie came into focus.

As the second act unwound, I realized that it was okay to root against the main character. In fact, the film actively encouraged it. This movie was clearly meant to be a morality tale, as the tragic central figure comes completely undone by all of his lies and illegal maneuverings. It was all about watching the noose tighten around him, and brother, that was a thrill to watch.

Robert basically has to fight a war on two fronts. Coming at him from one side is Det. Michael Bryer (Tim Roth), the homicide detective charged with finding Julie's driver. This character was very entertaining to watch, mostly because he's a very good cop. The guy's smart, he's driven, he's a very skilled interrogator, and he's determined to get murderers behind bars. He's also upset with the notion that the uber-wealthy are somehow above the law, which makes it all the easier to cheer him on. Plus, it's Tim Roth. Put the guy in an aggressive role (on either side of the law) and he's dynamite.

Coming at Robert from the other side is his own daughter. Brooke has noticed a lot of irregularities in the company books, and she's none too pleased about Daddy's noncommittal responses. I scarcely know where to begin with this conflict. After all, Brooke looks up to her father as a leader, a partner, a mentor, and a role model. She put so many different kinds of trust in Robert and he broke every one of them. He even put her in hot water, too: Brooke is so high up on the corporate ladder, there's no way she'd have plausible deniability if this fraud went to court. It's a heartbreaking and incredibly tricky position to be in, which makes it all the more fascinating to watch Brooke maneuver through the proceedings. Of course, it also helps that Marling is such a beautiful and talented actress with a great deal of experience in playing smart, strong-minded women.

I also have to mention Jimmy, who probably gets more screwed over than anyone else in this picture. Here's a character who owes a great debt to Robert (long story), so of course he gives Robert a ride with no questions asked. On the other hand, Jimmy has a criminal history, which comes back to bite him in a big way once the cops get on his trail. Jimmy faces a number of fascinating dilemmas. Is he really just a disposable pawn, or is Robert worth the loyalty? Why should he trust the police over his old benefactor? Does he take Robert's money, does he agree to testify, or does he keep his mouth shut and hope to avoid a decade in prison?

Moreover, I should point out that Jimmy is black. Most other films might tiptoe around this point or cast an actor of different ethnicity, hoping to be all safe or politically correct. Instead, this movie addresses the point head-on, explicitly using the notion of racial profiling to put Jimmy in even deeper over his head. That was a bold move, and it pays off nicely.

It's also worth pointing out that Jimmy isn't portrayed as some pidgin-talking thug from the Harlem ghetto. Instead, Nate Parker elegantly plays the character with intelligence and honor. Jimmy's a man trying to outgrow his criminal background, which makes him extremely sympathetic. Moreover, it's worth remembering that Jimmy's been through all of this before. He knows his rights and he knows how to use them.

Next up, I should probably talk about Ellen. I'm sorry to say that Susan Sarandon is underused in this film, at least until she comes onto the scene in a big way during the climax. Until that point, Ellen is basically standing in the eye of the hurricane. She's the one person who's completely oblivious to the proceedings, without any illegal secrets to keep track of. That's not to say she's stupid, just that she provides a uniquely grounded perspective. That proves to be very useful during key scenes, particularly where Brooke is concerned. Additionally, it's worth remembering that Sarandon does a very nice job of playing a loving wife. That's an easy thing to take for granted, but it's vital toward establishing Robert's character.

Which brings me to the protagonist himself. The important thing to remember about Robert is that even though he's an unsympathetic character who completely deserves his downfall, the movie doesn't portray him as one-dimensionally evil. Robert isn't a bad person, just a guy who's desperate to save his own hide. He's also very fond of talking about all the investors and employees he's responsible for. It's a convenient excuse for all of the illegal and unethical things he ostensibly does to protect them, but that's not to say he's necessarily wrong. Of course, no one calls Robert out on the massive country-wide clusterfuck just waiting to happen when somebody realizes that over $400 million have suddenly gone missing, but I'm guessing that's meant to be implied. After all, we're told multiple times that the economy is down, which implies that the film takes place in modern times. And modern audiences don't exactly need to be reminded how we got into this recession, do we?

To recap, Robert is a very savvy individual who knows how to move numbers and when to destroy evidence. Det. Bryer is a deceptively smart individual and a resourceful detective to boot. Brooke is a woman with the brains and tenacity to weave through her father's tangled-up ledgers. Jimmy is a man who's been through the criminal system and knows better than to fall for a detective's tricks. Ellen... well, I won't even get started on Ellen. Suffice to say that all of the major players in this film are very smart. As such, we can count on their moves to be inventive and strategically placed. Additionally, because the characters are all so desperate, we can count on them to be unpredictable as well.

So, the proceedings are intelligent, inventive, strategic, and unpredictable. What more could one ask for in a cat-and-mouse thriller?

Unfortunately, there is one incredibly glaring moment when a character acts stupidly. I don't dare spoil it, except to say that one of the more sympathetic characters makes a fatally unethical -- albeit well-intentioned -- move. As much as I appreciate what eventually happened as a direct result, there had to be a better way. As it is, the story point felt like a betrayal the way it was executed.

It also bears mentioning that some characters get short shrift. For example, I was rather disappointed that Peter didn't play a much bigger role. Don't remember who Peter is? Don't worry, the film didn't either. Far more importantly, do you remember that wealthy friend Robert borrowed $400 million from? The one who was threatening to take his money back with interest if Robert didn't pay it in short order? Yeah, he gets one scene in the first act before disappearing for the rest of the movie. That seemed like a rather prominent setup to a payoff that never came, in my opinion. I should also point out that Brooke and Det. Bryer both get storylines that are resolved off-camera. It would've been nice to get a more definite idea of how they ultimately bring the plot to its resolution, but that brings me to the film's ending.

To put it briefly, the film ends on a cliffhanger. We never learn exactly how everything will play out. For my part, though, I'm okay with that. In fact, I'd argue that the film carries far greater thematic relevance and a more powerful emotional punch precisely because of how and where it cut to black. Additionally, for all moral and practical purposes, Robert is left in checkmate. The film makes it explicitly clear that one way or another, he's lost. As far as I'm concerned, that's the important thing.

Though Arbitrage stumbles, it never falls. It's a fascinating thriller that's compelling and entertaining to watch, at least from the end of the first act onwards. It also serves as a morality play centered around a tragic protagonist who unwittingly manufactures his own downfall. If nothing else, Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Brit Marling, Tim Roth, and Nate Parker are all so much fun to watch that I have no problem giving this film a recommendation.

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