Sunday, September 23, 2012

“Arbitrage”: Trading in High Gere

Arbitrage is a sort of financial trading in which the trader never owns, touches, or otherwise cares about the assets traded. They are only numbers to him, and life is only a deal. Ultimate value is not important to the arbitrageur, who looks for lopsided relative values in shifting markets and plays the shift. Which makes arbitrage the perfect postmodern occupation, and “Arbitrage” an effective parable for our times. It’s also quite a yarn.

Its protagonist, Robert Miller, is a representative man; and Richard Gere is just the guy for the role. Now sixty-three, playing a man who turns sixty at the beginning of the story, Gere looks great, with the emphasis on looks. There is an emptiness behind his eyes, however, and when a huge overseas trade goes sour and a car subsequently goes off the road, ghosts move into the empty spaces.

I liked “Arbitrage” every bit as much as I was chilled by it, and the chill is, I think, the message.

Hollywood has made a mint warning us about money. The Michael Douglas “Wall Street” pictures were only one example. What makes “Arbitrage” effective is the way it and its camera skim across surfaces, sleekly, silkily, without ever touching them. We often see the world from the back seat of a limo, with the night world floating past us in a dream that’s really a nightmare. Gere’s Robert Miller gives his family the same skimming treatment, scarcely coming into contact with wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon) or daughter–business partner Brooke (Brit Marling), as he desperately tries to hold his world together when it goes off axis.

I am usually a sucker for father-daughter movies and wondered throughout the film why I didn’t feel more for Marling’s Brooke Miller, who smells a rat in her father’s books and confronts him over it only to get the same icy treatment he gives everyone else in business. The reason I felt nothing for Brooke is that she is her old man already, a thirty-something woman turning into a forty-something man-machine, a calculator without core. Marling plays her well, but who can feel for her?

Sarandon can play cold too. Her long-term fatigue over trying to hold up appearances while her husband whores around finally gives way to terminal resentment. In the final scenes, though he may succeed in keeping a grip on his fiction-driven finances, Robert sees everything closer to him disintegrate. The ending is not a reconciliation. If anything tells us that Miller has a shred of humanity left, a self behind those vacant eyes, it is his complex relationship with a young black man (Nate Parker) under his wing, who may be the only survivor of this shipwreck. 

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