Richard Gere starts out deceptively in Arbitrage, a moral drama about financial fraud, and ends it deceptively too, though not in a way his character could ever have imagined. He plays Robert Miller, a hedge-fund manager riding high in New York and about to celebrate turning 60 in the company of his wife (Susan Sarandon) and children.
He's a silver-haired, virile type, a loveable patriarch who confesses at his birthday dinner that he wants to spend more time with the people he loves the most, ie. his family. He seems to mean it, too, though that's soon given the lie when he slips out later that night to visit his hot young girlfriend Julie (Laetitia Casta) for a bit of action.
Thus the first chink in his armour. But he's hiding another secret: a crucial merger has stalled, and he's frantically trying to plug a $400m hole in his company's balance sheet. News is leaking out that the books may have been cooked. Writer-director Nicholas Jarecki is playing a risky game with audience sympathy here.
On the one hand, Miller is not the smiling shark that Gordon Gekko was in Wall Street – he'd never be so vulgar as to say "Greed is good" – yet, on the other, he exploits and manipulates people with an utter lack of scruples once his cover is threatened. And greed is his creed, even if he doesn't say it. The film is depending on a star performance to see it through, which is another risk: a lightweight who thinks he's a heavyweight, Gere is charming in a blank way, but I'm not sure he has the complexity to project much else beyond lordly irritation.
Miller's turning point is a late-night car accident, echoing that of Sherman McCoy, another Master of the Universe, in The Bonfire of the Vanities. The difference is that Miller's passenger dies, and instead of reporting it he steals off into the night. A tenacious police detective (Tim Roth) ferrets out evidence that Miller was picked up at the scene by a young associate (Nate Parker), the son of his late driver. That's quite a range of problems for one man to handle – marital, financial, legal, moral (the one he doesn't care so much about) – and they all seem to be gathering under a single banner: Nemesis.
What's odd is just how undramatic it feels. Jarecki fits the plotting together smoothly, too smoothly, because none of it really comes as a surprise. There are strong scenes, such as Miller's confrontation with his daughter (Brit Marling), the company's Chief Investment Officer who is only now twigging the scale of dad's deceit. "You think money's gonna fix this?" she asks. "What else is there," he deadpans, and then grows weary of her disgust.
Of recent financial thrillers Margin Call has been the most telling, because it explained the market in layman's terms and showed how the big financiers saved themselves with strategies of breathtaking cynicism. Arbitrage deals in comeuppance, but of such an unsatisfactory kind that you wonder what's been at stake. From almost the first scene Miller has been trying to schedule a meeting with "Mayfield", the CEO he's trying to do his big deal with. Mayfield keeps stalling, evading, and remains invisible nearly to the end, like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. Who is this big-shot enigma, we wonder?
The reveal: Mayfield is a jowly pussycat played by Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair, and the deal on which so much has been hanging is settled in five minutes on the back of a restaurant menu. Perhaps that sort of thing happens in real-life finance, but as a pay-off to all the lying and cheating you feel your investment in it has gone down rather than up.