Friday, November 9, 2012
Like the privileged child of a 1990s movie, the mistress throws a fit when Miller gets caught in a meeting and misses her important exhibition. After she gesticulates for a bit, the two head out and Miller passes out briefly at the wheel, leading to an absurdly oversized single-vehicle accident that leaves the woman dead and Miller terrified. Or maybe just extremely annoyed. Hard to say. Jarecki uses this involuntary manslaughter as a fatuous analogy. The man covers up his company's books to keep up appearances as the great hedge fund scheme implodes with exponentially increasing speed, and now he has to cover up his physical crime. This is an obvious, and common, method of tying more abstract, technically legal financial chicanery to that which people universally consider a violation of the law, and ostensibly it should make Miller seem doubly a villain.
But for a film that wallows so glibly in defeatist cynicism, Arbitrage's framing of this crime reflects its attitude toward Miller's financial transgressions. Gere's grating interaction with other people should peg him as a mean-spirited shark obsessed solely with himself, yet the actor looks like he simply read the technical jargon off the page without understanding a lick of the complicated legal shuffling required to pull off the tactics that lead to the economic crisis. And though he places his family, especially his daughter (who serves as his company's CIO), below his greed, he routinely claims, believably, that he wanted to provide for them. That has motivated many a villain, but the film inadvertently makes him sympathetic, as much a victim of his own design as the perpetrator. That he kills someone accidentally only compounds the sense that we should feel for this man.
Maybe he just seems sympathetic because those who seek to uncover his sins make even Gere's detached, clumsy performance riveting by comparison. Brooke (Brit Marling) notices the discrepancies in her father's books and proceeds to chase down answers like an old pulp journalist, not someone who would silently wish to make sure everything was alright within the company for which she is an executive. Her indignation when she learns the truth is laughable: Marling, barely 30, plays a character who enjoys a senior executive position at her father's multibillion dollar firm, yet she cannot fathom her dad's self-serving behavior? But for pure, stilted laziness, one cannot top Tim Roth as the detective on the case. Speaking in a Noo Yawk accent so thick he might as well walk around with a Nathan's Famous in his pistol holster, Roth's character instantly hones in on the billionaire as the prime suspect and speaks of taking down this rich, superior asshole as if getting even with the system on his lonesome. Yet Roth sleepwalks through this quest for roundabout social justice, failing to even muster up the will to truly intimidate the young black man (Nate Parker)—with priors, of course—who could hold the key to taking down Miller. Everyone in this movie acts with all the conviction of a bored high school student forced to read a passage of Shakespeare aloud.
Jarecki wraps their disinterested wheel-spinning in astonishingly banal direction; lighting has never stood out so powerfully to me for its mediocrity, and at no point does the director visually communicate that someone like Miller runs this country and makes the rules. Jarecki aims for shades of Chinatown with Arbitrage's conclusion, though it lacks any of the sick humor and committed nihilism of that film. Rather than depict an insurmountable system maintaining its status quo at all costs, this movie presents a handful of po-faced dopes who speak only to their own uselessness. No one truly pushes back against the powers that be, so the audience is left with no feeling that those powers cannot be bested. Like the center-right liberals with whom it aligns, Arbitrage plays at outrage with a societal evil but makes no move to attack it before declaring the situation hopeless and inalterable.