In Arbitrage, Richard Gere pulls off a seemingly-impossible feat: He makes you care about Robert Miller, a corrupt hedge fund billionaire whose financial crimes are starting to catch up to him. Loosely inspired by the Bernie Madoff-types who sprouted up all over Wall Street in 2008, Robert is a cheat, a liar and a thief — he’s irredeemable — but Gere somehow makes you like him anyway, playing him as a once-imperious man, now humbled and trying to work his way out of a mess.
His mess just happens to be enormous. Gere has always excelled at portraying smooth, elegant men who know a little more than everyone else in the room. But in Arbitrage he’s playing a different note: Desperation. As the movie opens, he’s trying to sell off his business without telling anyone he’s $400 million in debt. He’s a used-car salesman who wears $4,000 suits. Robert uses his daughter (Brit Marling), who works as his chief investment officer but doesn’t know about their dire situation, to fudge the company’s books. He plays dutiful husband to his wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon), but he keeps a beautiful mistress (Laetitia Casta) on the side. And now he has a detective (Tim Roth) snooping into his affairs, sensing Robert is hiding something. He has no idea.
Arbitrage marks the debut of writer-director Nicholas Jarecki, whose brothers are Andrew ( Capturing the Friedmans) and Eugene ( Freakonomics). Filmmaking runs in the family, which helps explain how Jarecki was able to pull off this polished, tense thriller with such skill and ease his first time behind the camera. Jarecki is also good with actors: Nate Parker is terrific as a working-class kid whose father once worked for Robert, and although Sarandon’s role is small, she justifies her presence with a big, explosive confrontation late in the film, showcasing the wrath of a rich, pampered woman who never imagined herself in the role of a fool.
But Arbitrage belongs entirely to Gere, who lets you feel Robert’s mounting stress as the noose tightens and his destruction begins to seem inevitable. Robert is a man with the resources to pack up and flee, never to be found by the police. But he respects his role of a patriarch and is unwilling to abandon his family, even if he ruins their lives in the process.
Arbitrage could have used a couple more plot turns — this high-stakes financial skullduggery business has become familiar in movies — and as the tough-guy cop, Roth seems like he’s auditioning for a revival of Baretta. But Gere keeps you hanging in there: Even at his worst — and Robert does some awful things — the actor almost makes you root for him, hoping he’ll get away with it.