With his soft features, assured gait and silky/sly charm, Richard Gere -- while far from the world's greatest actor -- is the perfect guy to cast when you want to mess with audiences' expectations. From "Pretty Woman," "An Officer and a Gentleman" and "American Gigolo" to "Primal Fear," "Chicago" and "The Hoax," Gere is beyond adept at playing self-absorbed narcissists you can't help but root for and actually like.
In "Arbitrage" Gere stars as Robert Miller, the founder and CEO of a New York investment firm who seemingly has it all. Shuttled from here to there in a private jet, he lives in an obscenely spacious Manhattan apartment with his loving wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon) and is utterly adored by his three children and several grandchildren. He's about to seal a deal to sell his company for roughly $1 billion and sail off slowly into the sunset. He's so humble he gets embarrassed when seeing himself on the cover of "Fortune" magazine. What a guy.
After softening us up like butter on a turkey, writer and first-time feature director Nicholas Jarecki pulls back the first of Miller's layers by revealing that he's having an affair with Julie (Laetitia Casta), a French artist he is "sponsoring." Having not quite come to the realization that men like Miller never leave their wives (or by extension, their money) Julie gets flustered when Miller is late for their trysts and really hits the wall when he does so at her first show.
While not as immediately obvious or spelled out directly, Jarecki hints that Miller's financial situation is not quite as rosy as he'd like and he does everything he can to perpetuate the shaky ruse. It is particularly important to Miller that he keep his daughter and CFO Brooke (Brit Marling) deep in the dark until the sale of the company is finalized.
The second act comfortably shifts into narrative overdrive with the death of a principal character under nefarious circumstances and one of Miller's financial backers starting to grumble -- loudly. As the screws start to tighten, Miller doesn't crack (he's too cool and composed for that) but he does break a considerable sweat. He receives several discomforting visits from a tenacious bulldog police detective (Tim Roth basically recycling his "Lie to Me" TV character) and starts getting peppered with increasingly pointed inquiries from Brooke.
Without getting close to giving anything crucial away, it can be said that Jarecki tosses in two third-act twists that shift "Arbitrage" in a direction we could not see coming. In some ways this is a very gratifying and unorthodox approach. Pinching a lot from Hitchcock and playing on the audience's awareness of Gere's resume, Jarecki forces viewers to be quasi-accomplices in the dual conspiracies. We know all that has happened and are aware of all of the possible outs. There are no surprise, out-of-left-field reveals (well, maybe a tiny one) or subterfuge red herrings. Jarecki never passes judgment on Miller; he leaves that entirely up to us.
Jarecki also delivers an ending that is more likely to happen in the real world than in any movie you've ever seen. There is justice of sorts and some degree of closure but all of it lacks the edginess and immediacy of the build-up. Some people might even interpret the final scene as a bridge to an unneeded sequel. The story doesn't conclude as much as it just stops.
There's a lot to like with "Arbitrage." It was magnificently shot, gorgeously framed, well-paced and the acting across the board is superb. Many might say Gere has never been better and they would have a valid point; he plays to all of his limited strengths.
For a first effort, Jarecki does a splendid job and has established himself as a formidable talent. What he needs to do next time out is to adhere to Hitchcock's constant modus operandi a little closer. Toy with the audience all you want; go creepy and get under their skin but never ever leave them hanging or unfulfilled. (Roadside Attractions)