Friday, September 14, 2012

Arbitrage: A fascinating, high-stakes poker game

Arbitrage (2012) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: R, for profanity and brief drug use
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.14.12

Alfred Hitchcock was famous for this trick.

Deranged Robert Walker, intended to plant incriminating evidence — a cigarette lighter — to unjustly implicate Farley Granger in a murder, accidently drops the item into a storm drain while nearing the scene of the crime. We viewers should be delighted; if Walker loses the lighter, then Granger triumphs: Good wins out over evil.

Increasingly troubled by irregularities in their company books, Brooke (Brit Marling) shares
her concerns with her father (Richard Gere). But his efforts to reassure her ring hollow,
forcing this intelligent young woman to wonder why he's being so evasive. What might
he be hiding?
And yet, perversely, as Walker stuffs his arm through the grate during this climactic scene in Strangers on a Train, his fingers not quite able to reach the lighter, we’re on the edge of our seats ... wanting him to succeed.

In Frenzy, serial killer Barry Foster disposes of his latest victim in a potato sack that is dumped into the rear of a truck filled with such sacks. Shortly thereafter, Foster realizes that his monogrammed stick pin, lost in the struggle, must be clasped in the dead woman’s hand. Foster tears off after the truck, climbs inside and starts pawing through burlap sacks.

We shouldn’t root for him; failure means that the wholly innocent — but circumstantially accused — Jon Finch will go free. But, again, we become emotionally invested in Foster’s search, and feel relieved when he finds the body ... and calmly breaks her fingers in order to retrieve the pin held tight in her fist.

In writer/director Nicholas Jarecki’s richly nuanced Arbitrage, uber-wealthy New York hedge fund magnate Robert Miller (Richard Gere) cheats on his wife, and has embezzled funds in order to conceal a $420 million shortfall that would derail the sale of his company to a bank. Just to dig the hole deeper, he flees the scene of a road accident in order to evade responsibility.

Make no mistake: Miller is a bad guy ... a smug, self-serving reprobate at best, and a conniving, soulless, law-breaking bastard at worst. And still, almost against our wills, we cheer him on, hoping that he’ll somehow keep all these tottering plates spinning, and somehow extricate himself from this ever-widening disaster of his own creation.

Jarecki’s clever premise and archly savvy script deserve considerable credit, as does Gere, giving the performance of his often under-appreciated career. But he’s not the only person tearing up the screen; solid supporting performances also are turned in by Susan Sarandon, Brit Marling, Tim Roth and young Nate Parker.

This is the second sleek, smart financial thriller we’ve seen recently, coming on the heels of last year’s similarly absorbing Margin Call; one could assume (correctly) that we’re all a bit obsessed by the topic. Margin Call was suggested strongly by actual Wall Street skullduggery, whereas Arbitrage is pure melodramatic fiction ... and yet Jarecki’s storyline looks, sounds and feels uncomfortably authentic.

Which is to say — sadly — that I’ve no doubt Miller’s real-world counterparts routinely engage in such sordid behavior. Contemplating the control they exert on our ship of state is seriously unsettling.

We’re introduced to Miller on his 60th birthday, celebrated at home while surrounded by his wife (Sarandon, as Ellen), his grown children — Brooke (Marling) and Peter (Austin Lysy), both employees at their father’s firm —and their families. Miller waxes poetically about this generational entourage being his “greatest achievement,” an apparently uncharacteristic sentiment that sets off Brooke’s radar; her father, she knows, gets maudlin only when business is going badly.

And, indeed, that’s the case. The pending company sale hinges on a rigged audit that will conceal the cooked books, and — worse yet — the buyer keeps ducking negotiation meetings, instead sending flunkies. Might he know something?

The crocodile nature of Miller’s schmaltzy tears becomes apparent when he prematurely abandons his own party — claiming the call of “work at the office” — in order to celebrate the event more quietly with girlfriend Julie Côte (Laetitia Casta). She’s a French art dealer looking to establish her own creative career; to that end, Miller has financed a gallery and even concealed her apartment on his company’s books.

Back at the office — for real — Brooke has uncovered disturbing evidence of financial chicanery. Ever the loyal daughter, she shares this discovery with her father, lacking the slightest suspicion that he’d be the source of what seems to be fraud.

Then comes the tragic vehicular accident, from which Miller stumbles away, unseen. Or so he hopes. His loyal but cautionary lawyer (Stuart Margolin, also delivering a well modulated performance) warns that Miller will have overlooked “at least 50 things,” any one of which could result in arrest, trial and a media circus ... which, naturally, would derail the pending company sale. Miller chooses to remain quiet.

But the cop who catches the case (Roth, as Detective Bryer) is imaginative, savvy and tenacious; he also has good instincts. From their first “polite” meeting — a masterpiece of innuendo and veiled threat, and a superb verbal duel by both actors — Bryer knows that Miller fled the accident and abandoned a victim. Better yet, Bryer knows precisely how to apply pressure, and who best to squeeze.

That would be Jimmy Grant (Parker), a young man with an intriguing tie to Miller’s past. We eventually learn the circumstances, but initially see only that Miller regards Jimmy as the one honorable individual in his life: a rather delectable irony. Surrounded by fat-cat lawyers and high-profile movers and shakers — in other words, his own kind — Miller prefers to trust a street kid from a dodgy part of the city.

But because Jimmy doesn’t belong to Miller’s rarefied universe, this young man is desperately, painfully vulnerable ... and so we begin to wonder if Miller’s many moral failings will include throwing this loyal lamb to the wolves, in order to save his own skin.

Gere has long been dogged by accusations that his limited acting chops bring down otherwise solid dramas, but that never has been fair. True, his range is narrow, and he has been involved in more than his share of stinkers (King David, First Knight, Red Corner and The Mothman Prophecies, among others). But Gere also is sensational in the right role, and has electrified the screen in films ranging from American Gigolo and An Officer and a Gentleman to Primal Fear and Chicago.

He’s at his best playing shady, smarmy alpha males who arrogantly believe they can fool, cheat or otherwise end-run their perceived inferiors; we love to watch him inhabit such characters, because it’s so much fun when they get caught. Consider his surprisingly nuanced work in The Hoax — based on actual events — as ample evidence.

Gere’s performance here is a benchmark for all such parts, to be placed alongside Michael Douglas’ work in Wall Street (the first one, not the sequel). Gere throws himself ferociously into the role, and it’s impossible not to admire a man — Miller — who is so adept at his work ... which is, simply, being a cad.

Roth, an equally striking on-camera presence, gives as good as he gets; his verbal sparring with Gere is the stuff of memorable cinema. Roth also scores well in a subtler part, because Jarecki’s script quickly forces us to confront a common moral quandary: Is it permissible to behave a “little bit” badly, in pursuit of a nobler goal?

And if the answer is a hesitant yes, are the good guys really any better than the bad guys?

Marling, a rising multi-hyphenate best known for co-scripting little films in which she also stars (Another Earth, Sound of My Voice), makes Brooke the character with whom we most easily empathize: an intelligent, ethical woman whom we can count on to do the right thing. Parker, conversely, is the feisty yet wholly overwhelmed innocent: the one we desperately hope won’t drown in this rising tide of bad behavior.

The always effervescent Sarandon seems underused at first, but Jarecki is merely holding her back; Ellen Miller’s “moment” comes in the third act, and it’s memorable.

Jarecki comes to us with modest prior credits: TV commercials, music videos, a short film and co-authorship of the script to 2008’s The Informers, a complex, multi-strand — and failed — roundelay drama akin to the Academy Award-winning Crash. I’ve no idea how that thin résumé allowed him to persuade anybody to finance Arbitrage, but I’m grateful to all the folks who gave the green light; this is smooth, accomplished scripting and filmmaking.

As the saying goes, I can’t wait to see what Jarecki does next.

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