Richard Gere excels at playing jerks, morally ambivalent, smug overachievers who glide through the world on an aura of handsomeness. That particular shade of the veterans star's screen persona reaches its zenith in Arbitrage, in which Gere essays an alpha male financial predator whose decades of success and toxic sense of entitlement have rotted his soul from the inside out. Gere's Robert Miller is a billionaire venture capitalist so used to getting his way that when things begin to head dramatically south, both professionally and personally, he is as dumbstruck as mighty Zeus discovering he's lost his thunderbolt.
He's an expert at manipulating numbers and people, and for months he's been pulling an elaborate magic act to disguise massive losses from a bad investment, from his partners, the feds, and most dangerously from the vital trio of women in is life. Those would be his posh, co-dependent wife (Susan Sarandon), his troublesome mistress (Laetitia Castia), and his ambitious daughter (Brit Marling), who helps audit the company's books. All three women are kept afloat by Miller's deep pockets and hard-won approval, but he keeps them all at a comfortable distance thanks to a lattice of lies.
When one of these women dies in an accident, Miller is confident that he can use his charm, wits and influence to cover up his involvement and sweep it under the rug as easily as he buries multimillion-dollar boondoggles at work. Miller is accustomed to being the smartest guy in the room, but with an industriously gritty police detective (Tim Roth) on his back, we sit back and watch Gere sweat it out like the killer of the week celebrity guest star on Columbo: a prize hog being slow-roasted on a spit.
It's interesting that Gere, along with his liberal-leaning activist peer Michael Douglas, seems fascinated by playing corrupt Wall Street fat cats; it's as if they were attempting to get inside the enemy's skin. In this film, Gere, in fine, awards-attention-grabbing form, certainly seems to inhabit the character, and he continually indicates that there's more going on behind his eyes than we're ever privy to.
First-time narrative director Nicholas Jarecki (who made the fine documentary The Outsider about maverick filmmaker James Toback) has all the elements in place for an enjoyably sophisticated, adult feature, one with a superb cast and all the trimmings of a prestige piece. If the final result is a tad shallow, it may reflect that the lead is something of a hollow man. The film doesn't teach us, aside from hubris, what really motivates crooks like Bernie Madoff or the heads of Lehman Brothers, but it is perversely fun to watch one of their kind squirm.
At the point when Arbitrage segues from being a detached character piece and into a zippy thriller, it becomes both more gripping and yet oddly less interesting. The turn toward more conventional plotting accelerates the pace, but assures that we'll merely scratch the surface of the deeper questions in Miller's complex persona. In fact, the term arbitrage refers to profiting from the simultaneous purchase and sale of the same commodity. Likewise, the film seems to play both sides, by making us instinctively root for a guy that we know is guilty as hell.