Kenneth Lay died unpunished. Robert Miller—the shady businessman at the center of the corporate thriller Arbitrage—not only lives, but gets to suffer, well, some of the consequences of his white-collar crimes. It should be easy to hiss at Miller, who has been borrowing appalling amounts of money so he can sell off his flailing business at a pretty penny, accidentally kills his mistress (Laetitia Casta), flees the scene and, perhaps knowingly, embroils in this mess Jimmy (Nate Parker), the struggling son of his former chauffeur.
Miller was once to be played by a presumably weary and gruff Al Pacino. Instead he’s played by Richard Gere, who’s all wrong. Gere specializes in emo pricks: absurdly wealthy and powerful men viewers would pelt with popcorn if Gere didn’t play them with self-pity. In theory, that muddies Arbitrage’s moral waters: The bulk of the narrative finds Miller frantically trying to evade capture, yet the more Miller acts heinously, the more Gere amps up the puppydog eyes.
Arbitrage has been self-consciously erected as a warmly lit (and overly studied) neo-noir, where the viewer is forced, by the standards of classical storytelling, to root for a baddie. But the balance is off. Gere tips the scales too much in his favor, and his comeuppance, when it finally comes, only reinforces the notion that Miller isn’t the corporate world’s only—or even worst—fuckhead. Tim Roth doesn’t help, with his obnoxious and hammy dogged detective.
Writer/director Nicholas Jarecki is part of the Jarecki dynasty, whose members, Andrew (Capturing the Friedmans) and Eugene (Why We Fight), tend to be decent documentarians who misstep when they turn to fiction (see—that is, don’t see—Andrew’s All Good Things). Despite Arbitrage’s conceptual flaws, Nicholas at least weaves in some knowing details, like the way detectives wear mittens around moneyed suspects but turn the lives of low-income minorities like Jimmy into waking nightmares. Otherwise, the best you can say about Arbitrage is that it’s the first film in which Brit Marling has, if too briefly, lived up to all her hype, even if it does unforgivably waste the great Chris Eigeman (Metropolitan, Kicking and Screaming) as a mere exposition machine.