Readers of the AFR probably don’t need to have the word “arbitrage” explained, but for the record, according to Wikipedia, it is “the practice of taking advantage of a price difference between two or more markets.”
In Nicholas Jarecki’s film, the term functions as a metaphor for a series of trade-offs conducted by hedge fund tycoon, Robert Miller, as he tries to resolve two monumental crises in his private and public lives. The difference to be exploited is that between appearance and reality.
In the eyes of the world the smooth Miller is a successful financier, a philanthropist and family man. In reality he is a philanderer and a fraud, struggling to keep his dishonest dealings from being exposed. He has tried to protect his family from the consequences of his actions but the cracks in all his relationships are opening up.
Arbitrage is not a movie about the money markets such as Margin Call, it is a melodrama that uses the finance industry as a backdrop. It is amusing to compare the fanciful part Richard Gere played in Pretty Woman (1990), to his role in this film. Even though he was a Mitt Romney-style corporate raider in that earlier piece of cinematic fluff, he was a more sympathetic character than Robert Miller. Post-GFC Wall Street is now stereotyped as as the root of all evil, and a loveable hedge fund manager is inconceivable.
Gere does his best to portray Miller as a conflicted personality, struggling to reconcile his mistakes and crimes with a desperate instinct for survival. Nevertheless he is a colourless figure – a stricture that might be applied to almost everyone in this competent but minor movie.
In his debut feature as writer and director, Nicholas Jarecki seems chiefly determined not to make mistakes. The script is tight, serviceable and forgettable. The plot has a few neat twists but remains predictable. A big name cast, including Gere, Susan Sarandon and Tim Roth, are never required to work up a sweat. It would make a good telemovie. The mitigating factor is that Jarecki is only 33 years old, and has plenty of time to grow a little more adventurous.
The film begins with Miller celebrating his 60th birthday with his family, telling his wife and kids how important they are to him. That same evening he slips out to visit Julie (Laetitia Casta), a French artist whom he has installed in a downtown apartment. While this is going on, he is trying to close a $400 million deal for the sale of his company, knowing he has cooked the books.
As the deal falters his girlfriend makes increasing demands on his affections. When she is killed in an accident caused by Miller’s negligence, he has to engineer a hasty cover-up or watch everything come crashing down. He calls on the assistance of a young black guy (Nate Parker), who is the only acquaintance he feels he can trust. Already his daughter, Brook (Britt Marling), has been looking into the accounts and found that her adored father is a crook.
In the midst of this steadily building pressure there is one bizarre moment, when Miller confronts the merchant banker who has been stalling on the take-over to secure a better price. The hard-nosed Mr. Mayfield turns out to be played by Graydon Carter, the dandified editor of Vanity Fair. This may be a New York in-joke, but it’s hard to imagine Carter as a ruthless corporate shark. It might, however, be an excellent way of getting your movie written up in Vanity Fair.
We are never quite sure if Miller will avoid being prosecuted for fraud or for manslaughter, and I’m not about to reveal what happens. He knows that the merest hint of bad publicity will ruin his chances of saving and selling his company, while any connection with Julie’s death will create a front-page scandal.
Miller’s view of the world is an exploitative one where everyone and everything may be bought and sold, but he is not the only practising amoralist. Tim Roth as Detective Bryer is willing to bend the rules in order to secure a conviction. Miller’s wife, Ellen, reveals herself to be just as uncompromising as any business rival when stating her terms for preserving their marriage. Even his blonde-haired, blue-eyed daughter is prepared to swallow her pride and treat her daddy as if he were a pillar of respectability.
As far as Wall Street drama goes this low-intensity story feels understated. For the great cinematic extravaganza of the GFC I’d like to suggest The True Story of Lehman Brothers. Since Ken Russell is no longer around one would need to hire Tinto Brass as director. After his success with Caligula, he is probably ready to take on something a bit more extreme.
Arbitrage, USA, rated MA,107 mins.
Published by the Australian Financial Review, October 06, 2012