Imagine if Richard Gere’s character in Pretty Woman, Edward Lewis, didn’t have a moral compass. That’s Robert Miller, the character he plays in Nicholas Jarecki’s sharp new thriller, Arbitrage.
Miller is a slimeball, but to reduce him to that is to miss the point. He’s a smooth talking, loveable slimeball, the kind of guy who would borrow $412 million from a tycoon friend and then not give it back when he says he will; the kind of guy who will tell his wife (Susan Sarandon) and children how much he loves them at his birthday celebration, then duck out early to sleep with his artist mistress (Laetitia Casta).
He’s the kind of slimeball we should hate, but instead we’re completely drawn to him. That’s why Arbitrage is a successful, shrewd and nimble thriller. Gere is at his best when playing men who use all their charm to stay one step ahead of everyone else. Think about him in the otherwise forgettable Primal Fear: The knowing smirk and suave, silvery hair go a long way.
And Miller is in serious trouble. That $412 million he borrowed is to cover a hole in his company’s finances as he closes a deal to sell it. He’s on the losing end of a bad business deal in a foreign country with a hostile government. He’s lying to his chief investment officer, who also happens to be his daughter (Brit Marling). Then he leaves the scene of a car accident without waiting for police.
Lucky for Miller, he’s rich and he can use his power and influence to dodge the many problems in his path. It’s when all the lies start piling up that Jarecki’s screenplay kicks into high gear. In fact, Miller is so close to getting nailed for every dirty thing on his plate, it seems for a while that Jarecki may have overplayed his hand.
Here’s the thing, though: When shady people are doing shady things, they’re helped and harmed along the way by disparate groups of people. Jarecki knows this, and weaves each character into Miller’s narrative deftly, so that the tension is high—will Miller get away with everything or nothing?—and the audience will forget some of the more absurd plot turns while it holds its breath.
One of those absurd plot turns is provided by Det. Michael Bryer (Tim Roth), who’s otherwise the best character in Arbitrage. His NYPD cop would love to bust Miller for the car accident, and Roth puts that weird, loping gait of his to good use. Each time he pops up, it’s as if he’s out of breath, fumbling and trying to remember a crucial piece of information, until he goes in for the kill. But it’s all a ruse; he knows exactly what he’s doing. Peter Falk would be proud.
There are other absurd plot twists—like how Miller escapes that car accident unseen on what looks like New York’s Henry Hudson Parkway, which is never without traffic—and some twists that hold up well. For example, Graydon Carter makes a late-in-the-film appearance as the tycoon who may or may not be buying Miller’s company. Once one gets past the Vanity Fair editor’s distracting hair and negligible acting skills, one can again focus on that $412 million, which turns out to be a not insignificant amount of money to even the wealthiest of people.
Of course, none of the movie hangs together without Gere, who hits all the right notes. We want to hate Robert Miller, but we don’t. Sarandon deserves some credit, too, for playing a corporate wife who can only take so much before standing up for herself and her family. It’s also a pleasure to see Chris Eigeman, albeit in a too-small part.
Make no mistake. Robert Miller is a bad guy. He takes advantage of everyone, ignores the counsel of his advisers and literally smiles while he does it. To paraphrase Chris Rock, he’s the kind of guy who steals your stuff and then comes to your house the next day to check on you.
But no matter what Miller does, we love him. Maybe that’s why these tycoons keep getting away with murder.
Written and directed by Nicholas Jarecki
With Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon and Tim Roth