Arbitrage (2012) – Richard Gere shines in Nicholas Jarecki’s tense and absorbing character study

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When Arbitrage released in India, the casual moviegoers did not pay much attention to it. It was largely neglected. I’m a huge Richard Gere fan and when I saw the glowing reviews, I wanted to watch it badly. I did not expect it to release here but it did. A friend of mine told me about a screening he had attended and that the audience largely comprised of people from the financial sector as they were aware that the film dealt with high-finance. I went to a theater and saw the same crowd. They were some of the most decent-looking and well-behaved crowd I’ve seen and in Indian theaters, this is a rarity. There was pin-drop silence during the screening.

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Richard Gere plays an incredibly rich, respectable and influential hedge-fund manager named Robert Miller. He is a family man and in the beginning of the film, we see him celebrating his 60th birthday with his wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon) and daughter Brooke (Brit Marling). We get the impression that he is strongly committed to his family. But outside appearances can be deceiving and we soon learn that he has a mistress Julie (Laetitia Casta) who is visibly upset because he did not make time to celebrate his birthday with her. He makes it up for this by persuading her to go along with him for a trip. There is an unexpected car crash during their trip and Julie is killed. He escapes with a non-life-threatening injury. In order to hide his truth from everyone, he calls Jimmy Grant (Nate Parker) the son of an old chauffeur of his. Jimmy is someone with a criminal record and Robert had helped him in the past. Jimmy reluctantly comes to his rescue. The detective investigating the crash is Bryer (Tim Roth) who senses something amiss about the whole thing and questions Robert. Bryer knows about Julie but is not fully aware of her connection with Robert. He manages to call Jimmy before a grand jury but he denies having helped Robert. We also learn that Robert is in the middle of selling his company to a prospective buyer called Mayfield and he doesn’t want anything to jeopardize the sale. Meanwhile, Brooke shockingly discovers that her father had cooked his books and has been trying to cover up a $400 million loss for quite a while.

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Finance is not my area but still I found the film immensely absorbing and fascinating. You don’t have to be aware of all the financial terms and jargons to fully enjoy it. It’s first and foremost a character drama and one of the best there is. And yes, it also doubles as a thriller and family drama. We are constantly trying to predict the outcome of Robert’s fate. Tim Roth’s Bryer is not a stupid detective. He strongly suspects that Robert is involved in that crash. At the same time, we are also wondering if his wife would discover about his relationship with Julie. And to add to this, the discovery of Robert’s fraud adds to the tension that’s already building up.

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Arbitrage immediately evokes another high-finance drama, Oliver Stone’s 1987 film, Wall Street (one of my favorites). In that, Gordon Gekko (an outstanding Michael Douglas) had a similar profession. But as characters, Robert Miller and Gordon Gekko are not alike. Gordon is driven by greed and lofty aspirations whereas Robert is simply looking to retire and lead a quiet life after selling his company. You also get a sense that Robert is a compassionate man. He cares about his family as well as Jimmy. In a particular moment in the film, he contemplates giving himself up to prevent Jimmy from going through anymore trouble. But Gordon is the kind of man who would give up his own mother to get what he wants (as noted by Terence Stamp’s character in the film).

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Even though Robert is a fraudster, you can’t help rooting for him. You admire his confidence and his smooth ingratiating manner. I am aware that there are other fans of this film who felt exactly the same way as I did. I recall Gere saying in an interview that he some of friends from Wall Street felt both happy and also a little upset with the film. They saw a little of them in Robert, I assume. Now, you know a film is damn good when someone responds like that. The film basically did the same thing to me that Taxi Driver did. Oh, and this one has an ambiguous ending too. I showed the film to my dad and when the final scene unexpectedly faded to black, he went, “What happened? It’s over?” and I had to explain to him what I think could’ve happened.

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Now there is also something you can learn from the film. I happened to come across an interesting Forbes article by Jim Camp called “Four Negotiating Lessons From Richard Gere’s ‘Arbitrage'”.(You can google it) In that he pointed out some of the flaws of Gere’s character and that anyone working in the financial sector would do well to avoid making the same mistakes that he did. He lists four tips:

1) Don’t be needy.
2) Be prepared for the adversary’s no-shows.
3) Realize that adversarial no-shows are often a ploy.
4) Expect an apology for a no-show or cancellation.

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Nicholas Jarecki has made an outstanding directorial debut with this film. I’m eagerly waiting to see what he has in store for us next. He is a director to watch out for. For a first timer, this is a very impressive debut. And Richard Gere hasn’t done anything like this in a long while. I loved his work in An Officer and a Gentleman, American Gigolo and Breathless. I’m adding Arbitrage to that list as well. Susan Sarandon and Brit Marling has also put in commendable performances. The overall casting is perfect. And one of my favorite legendary directors William Friedkin makes a rare cameo. This is one of the best films of 2012, in my book.

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