Robert Miller has a problem. The hedge fund tycoon is on the brink of making a much-needed sale of his company to a major bank, but the sale won't go through if the bank gets wind of the fact that the company is not nearly as successful as it looks on paper because Miller has cooked the books to the tune of $417 million.
That's as much understanding of the world of high finance as anyone needs to become completely wrapped up in writer Nicholas Jarecki's white-knuckle thriller, "Arbitrage." All one needs is the understanding that high-stakes arbitrageurs like Miller make their fortunes on risky, sometimes iffy, split-second trades, and anyone who has been even the smallest cog in the U.S. economy since 2008 has a more than adequate amount of that.
One needs only that passing knowledge of the world that Bernie Madoff built, because the commodities that Miller shuffles around with the greatest recklessness and arrogance are not things like Russian copper futures, they are the futures of the people around him. "Arbitrage" is a study of what happens to a man for whom morals are optional when his high-octane wheelings and dealings threaten to bring down his empire and leave his loved ones in ruin.
But that is not Miller's only problem. The bank official he's looking to make a deal with is playing hard-to-get, and the friend from whom he borrowed the $417 million is looking to be repaid, NOW. The books are in the hands of the auditor, his wife is looking for a check for her pet charity, he is late for his 60th birthday party and his young, high-maintenance French mistress is making increasing demands on his time.
Miller handles all of this with equal amounts of hubris, adrenaline and Macallen scotch. But then he wrecks a car, and someone dies, and suddenly Miller's control over his world begins to slip away.
The success of a movie like this hinges on the actor chosen to play the lead, and Jarecki quite wisely chose to cast Richard Gere as the magnate struggling against time, fate and the repercussions of his own actions to try to keep his world from collapsing.
Gere, who appears in nearly every scene of "Arbitrage," turns in the best performance of his career, conveying with supreme skill and remarkable restraint the exquisite agony of Miller's desperation. Gere has the ability to play charming and smarmy with equal ease, and we see Miller use both qualities to finesse his way out of dicey situations and snooker both his adversaries and the people who rely on him.
The rest of the cast is stellar, as well. Susan Sarandon plays to perfection Miller's wife, Ellen, the patrician socialite who knows more than she lets on and has an agenda of her own. Brit Marling brings a soft-white incandescence to the role of Brooke Miller, the innocent heir apparent. Neither is given enough to do in the film, but both do sublimely well with the material they are given. Fortunately, ample screen time is given to Tim Roth, whose schlubby, Columbo-esque detective is a perfect foil to Gere's slick, sleek Miller.
Jarecki's script is sharp and smart and full of tension and torque, though there are a couple of minor plot points that wouldn't hold up under rigorous academic scrutiny. He approaches the subject matter with cool detachment, allowing the audience to be drawn in to Miller's dilemma, watch him wrestle with his own moral ambiguity and face their own.
Starring: Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Tim Roth
Director: Nicholas Jarecki
Running time: 100 minutes
Rating: R for language, brief violent images and drug use.
The Lowdown: A troubled hedge fund magnate makes an error that forces him to turn to an unlikely person for help.