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Thursday
Jan302014

Arbitrage

What can the rich do that the rest of us cannot?  According to some theories, the rich do everything they can for the non-rich: they create jobs, stimulate the economy, improve technology, and even, purely out of the goodness of their bleeding hearts, give away a sizable slice of their fortune to the most needy and downtrodden.  They are the great benefactors of society, and everything that can be undertaken to aid them in their noble quest should become our mantras and watchwords.  Nevertheless, repeated efforts are made to curb the rich in their strategies because some have felt, obviously out of envy, that they have become too powerful, too in control of governments and their subjects, too deeply embedded in every financial circuit to be removable.  Why would we want to extract such elements as if they were parasites creeping just beneath our epidermis?  If you don't immediately know the answer, dear reader, these pages are not for you.  You may also wish to avoid a viewing of this recent film.     

Life could be a little harder for the hedge fund billionaire with the everyday name, Robert Miller (Richard Gere).  He has an understanding and still-attractive wife, Ellen (Susan Sarandon), a razor-sharp protégé of a daughter, Brooke (Brit Marling), a son who has provided him with three young heirs, a mansion in New York city proper, and a nearly-completed deal to foist his company on a needy competitor and retreat from the cutthroat world he clearly adores.  Movies like to believe a man's character can be revealed by how he celebrates his birthday, and if that is indeed the case, Miller's sixtieth tells us all we need to know.  He arrives late, indifferently hands his grandkids gifts his butler procured, makes one of the most disingenuous toasts you will ever hear, and absconds shortly thereafter in defiance of Ellen's mild but implicative protests.  His destination?  A French painter by the name of Julie (Laetitia Casta), who has the very distinct advantage of being half his wife's age and occupying an apartment bankrolled by our birthday boy.  Julie has faint talent as a painter (she will be later grouped disparagingly with some "gallerists"), although her artistic 'discovery' dovetails with her status as a billionaire's paramour.  We know Julie's is a "blanker role" (to quote this writer), that of the eternally patient mistress, and one which spells the doom of the person awaited.  What we do not know just yet is what sort of doom.  And so, as the almost-closed deal gets gradually prised open, Miller eschews Julie's gallery showing for a dinner meeting his competitor, to everyone's frustration, does not attend.  Eventually he will come and comfort his lover, convince her that they are meant for each other (adulterers are notoriously persuasive), and propose that the two of them run away for the weekend, mere hours after Ellen suggested a year of travel, numbers perhaps proportionable to how many Julies Ellen has had to endure.  Miller drives off into the endless night, Julie falls asleep on his shoulder, and, as it were, Miller also catches a few winks, resulting in a wrecked car and the violent end to a French painter's career and earthly existence.

For reasons evident to even a first-time viewer of Arbitrage, to be only hinted at here, what happens next is as ingenious as it is implausible.  Ever in extrication mode, even after barely escaping the scythe, Miller places a phone call to Jimmy (Nate Parker), a young black resident of Harlem.  This information is vital for what will befall our hedge fund magnate, yet the connection between the two men (which is never hidden from us, and only temporarily from the police) is so logical that Miller's request cannot be considered a well-laid plan.  Eventually a policeman (Tim Roth) will come and discomfort Miller, as well as his whole family, with all kinds of silly questions such as how Miller might have gotten that scar beneath his snow-capped crown of hair, or why he might have some reason beyond vanity to keep his name out of the headlines (at one point, the almost-closed deal flies open like storm-struck French windows).  Our billionaire keeps slipping away from possible confrontation, consulting with his unconscionable attorney (Stuart Margolin), and checking in on the still-unsettled foisting of the family business on his rival, a peacock-maned fellow by the name of Mayfield (Graydon Carter).  The rather unbearable tension culminates in a scene at New York's most private public place, Central Park, where father and daughter, who is also his company's chief financial officer, discuss the troublesome transaction, why hedge funds basically encourage dishonesty, and, in a passionate rant, what truly moves and shakes Robert Miller.  His great love in life will not surprise you, and perhaps neither will his callousness, developed over decades of tricking people into believing he really is the "Oracle of Gracie Square."  Brooke's impression of her father sustains what may be loosely termed a sledgehammer-like blow, to be returned only as the final minutes of our film come into focus.

What Arbitrage may lack in originality, it makes for up in gentleness, superb acting, and an attention to detail.  Voices are occasionally raised, but they are in accounted indignation; vulgarities escape when they are truly warranted; and disputes between man and woman are handled as if the two were equals and always could be if both sides so desired.  Gere, attractive and boyish enough to get away with acting the immature fraud, could not be better cast (an obese, toad-like businessman like Mayfield, whose name evokes a wonderful retirement, would have taken his fall with more dignity).  To get Sarandon, whose natural beauty has been amplified by science in recent years, off a subject, Miller recalls the cheap meals they used to enjoy at a local diner, and for but a moment they again become high-school or college sweethearts.  And Miller's interaction with his lawyer is shorthand for two people who have always known each other, and known what evil lurks in the hearts of men, including their own miserable organs.  Yet the most magnificent scenes are with the two most important women in his life.  His daughter idolizes his acumen and, like every child, does not want her father to stop working because that means he may stop moving and breathing; she justifiably "cannot imagine" what they would do outside the office.  And then Ellen, who buttonholes him as he leaves his own birthday party to "go back to the office" to take care of "that thing," when she knows there is no such "thing," at least nothing that needs to be restricted to an office, will, very late in our film, make her husband an unforgettable offer.  All of which may explain why the same patriarch feels like gushing to his newly appreciated family that it took him "these sixty years" to realize what was most important.  Or maybe the last sixty minutes in the ride over from the airport.

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