The "having it all" lifestyle of the CEO played by Richard Gere in Arbitrage may not be very relatable, but his nightmare scenario of losing it all should ring a bell for most people. Gere's smugly successful Robert Miller—currently presiding over a deal to sell his venture capital company—convincingly holds court, all smiles, at the office and at home. But away from his family (socialite wife Susan Sarandon, ineffectual son Austin Lysy, and earnest daughter Brit Marling), Miller has a sleek, coke-tooting European mistress (Laetitia Casta), and away from his co-workers—his children included—he's hiding financial improprieties that could mean financial ruin and jail time.
And yet, that's all of relatively minor concern to Miller, who only becomes shaken when facing involuntary manslaughter charges after crashing his luxury sedan. True to form, he immediately abdicates responsibility and begins covering up his misdeeds; disconcertingly, he ropes in Jimmy Grant, a young black man (Nate Parker) with whom Miller has personal history, to assist him in fleeing the scene of the crime. The Chappaquiddick-esque scenario proves instantly recognizable as a symbol of corrupt power allowing the rich and influential to "get away with murder."
However, as written and directed by Nicholas Jarecki, Arbitrage is at its most interesting when exploring the choices facing Miller and Grant when the police swiftly identify the younger man and begin turning the screws on him. Grant feels an obligation to Miller, but how far should it go? And though Miller needs Grant (and respects Grant more than his own son), will he nevertheless sell his savior down the river? Mostly unspoken, but loud and clear as subtext, are the matters of race, including patriarchal white privilege.
At its essence, Arbitrage is a potboiler, heating up with tension as Miller finds his lies catching up with him. Surprisingly, the most suspenseful scene—also the most sharply scripted and played—may be the climactic deal negotiation between Miller and his potential buyer (perfectly played by Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter). Never to be underestimated, Tim Roth tickles as the Columbo-esque detective motivated by class resentment to bring Miller down.
Before Arbitrage arrives at its clichéd foregone conclusion, Jarecki succeeds in giving his thriller enough thematic texture to set it apart, and his star a showcase reminding of Gere's ability. Playing a character that's almost entirely unsympathetic, Gere demonstrates the outward charm that's allowed Miller to accumulate his wealth and status, as well as the abyss-staring soul his showmanship conceals.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]