Is it fair to say that Richard Gere’s success rests with how good he looks in suits? Think about it: clothes have made his career. In "American Gigolo," he had a breakthrough role strikingly dressed in Armani; in "Pretty Woman" he played a dreamy Prince Charming in a tux; and now in "Arbitrage" he’s an investment banker who looks right at home in Barney’s business drag.
Not that Gere doesn’t deserve credit as an actor - over the years, he has developed a cool, self-reverential acting style. Now in his 60s, he maintains one of the most photogenic profiles in movies; and in this latest role finds a perfect fit for his good looks and method acting.
Gere is best playing extensions of himself, and in "Arbitrage" personifies a duplicitous one-percenter with just the right blend of cynicism, calculation and - believe it or not - sympathy. His Robert Miller is a capitalist monster right off an Occupy placard; yet, as this morality tale continues, you find yourself oddly rooting for him.
That is because the world that writer/director Nicholas Jarecki (in an assured writing/directing debut) creates lacks a moral compass. Not only is Miller, the investment banker lauded on the cover of Forbes, something of a Bernie Madoff con man; but the world he operates in is filled with amoral players each with their own agenda. What Gere brings to the role is a sense that he enjoys - actually, loves - playing the game. Closing the deal becomes a means to an end, and Miller is a master at it.
This being a morality tale he, of course, gets his comeuppance; but not, thanks to Jarecki’s crafty plotting, in the expected way. In some ways "Arbitrage" is not unlike "Bonfire of the Vanities," but slimmer, more compact, with a Master of an out-of-joint Universe. Like in that Tom Wolfe story, its hero is nearly done in by his mistress and an automobile accident; in this case a sleep-induced car wreck in which Miller’s mistress (a haughty artist played by Laetitia Casta), is killed.
A bruised Miller escapes with the help of Jimmy Grant (a terrific Nate Parker), the son of his former chauffeur; but NYPD detective Michael Bryer (Tim Roth) is soon on Miller’s trail, using the Grant as bait. That Grant is African-American gives the film a larger, social context that echoes Wolfe’s epic tale’s commentary on race. The only way Roth can get at Miller is to intimidate Grant, who has a criminal record; but this theme is never underscored, rather is textured in the story and never overwhelms with rhetorical overkill.
As this police investigation unfolds, Miller attempts a highly questionable scheme of his own: selling his failing investment firm by falsifying its assets. He has borrowed $413 million from a rich friend to cover his losses in order to pass an audit; but the sale stalls and Miller must smooth over his fraying empire. His plan is nearly undermined when his daughter, a financial officer in the firm played with cool efficiency by Brit Marling, becomes aware of the discrepancies in the records and confronts her father.
What keeps the story involving is how Miller uses his street-smarts to cover up both his fraudulent dealmaking and involvement in a fatal automobile accident. Gere is enormously persuasive at working the angles - even when it appears he has no options, a sly smile comes across his lips as he makes his next move. It would be difficult to imagine another actor playing the part with such attractive guile: he may be a monster, but damn is he smooth!
In some ways, "Arbitrage" is a companion piece to last year’s "Margin Call," which so effectively depicted the 2008 financial meltdown as a race to take cover as Wall Street implodes. Like in that film, the story unfolds in the style of a corporate thriller: Jarecki has an elegant, crisp style that keeps the story in forward-motion. Douglas Crise’s editing is lean, fitting the contours of the narrative. Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography has a lush look, that’s nicely augmented by Cliff Martinez’s seductive synthesized score. Like Hitchcock, Jarecki understands how important it is to make the audience complicit with his protagonist; but also the importance of making sure that Miller doesn’t fool everyone. It takes an actress like Susan Sarandon to give that role stature. As Gere’s socialite wife, Sarandon has the elegance, intelligent and innate sense of survival that makes the film’s climatic encounter so satisfying. She isn’t in this densely packed film all that much, but she brings to it the moral counter-weight it so crucially needs.
Tim Roth plays the police detective Columbo-styled, rumpled, but determined to get his target. He is clearly outranked amongst the Park Avenue set he’s investigating, yet brings to the role a proletarian moral outrage. He’s not only angry at the crime being covered up as he is at attitude that this one-percenter can get away with it. The way he does this - playing cat-and-mouse with Miller - gives the film’s mid-section the feel of a police procedural. But why he never uses his ace-in-the-hole (he actually sees Miller at the scene of the crime) is never fully amplified. Still, what drives "Arbitrage" is the fun of watching Gere slip through the legal and moral landscape the film so cleverly sets up. He has that real movie star quality - charisma - that makes this his best film role in years. And, yes, he looks great in suits.