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by Shawn Stone on September 20, 2012

Directed by Nicholas Jarecki

If Mitt Romney were more like Richard Gere’s Robert Miller, captain of finance and billion-dollar dealmaker extraordinaire in the thriller Arbitrage, he’d be kicking ass in the polls right now. Gere’s character lies, cheats and steals; he exploits his family and friends; he outwits the police and laughs at the law. And, sitting in the audience, you can’t help but root for him. He’s so unapologetically himself, so completely up-front about the value of money over all, that he ends up being the hero of a film that casts him as the villain.

You’re speaking above your level of competence: Marling and Gere in Arbitrage.

One suspects that writer-director Nicholas Jarecki set out to make a film that shows just how evil, soulless and money-grubbing these Wall Street guys can be. (And he would get no argument from this reviewer.) Unfortunately for the first-time feature filmmaker, he cast Gere as his lead. Gere is never more effective or engaging than when he’s playing a character who exists somewhere on the moral sliding scale from compromised (Chicago) to monstrous (Internal Affairs).

Robert Miller is at the peak of his career. He’s about to sell the family firm to a banking conglomerate, which will solve a little problem of looming insolvency hanging over his head. He’s going to set his kids up in lucrative jobs; make his wife (Susan Sarandon) happy by endowing a medical charity; and try to spend more time with his much younger, gallery-owner mistress (Laetitia Casta). It’s all a form of deal making, or, as per the title, arbitrage: Miller has set it up that he will come out ahead in a series of complex transactions that involve emotions and money.

Then, in one disastrous moment, a fatal accident throws everything into turmoil. Miller’s unforced error provokes police interest. At the same time, his CFO daughter (Brit Marling) begins to suspect that maybe her dad isn’t playing the finance game according to the rules. And as the pressures increase and more innocent people are drawn into Miller’s various deceits, the tension builds in an entirely satisfying manner.

Gere is, as noted, terrific. But a large part of the reason you end up rooting for him is that his opposition is so ineffectual. His most potent antagonist is supposed to be his daughter; while Marling is quite good in the role, the character, as written, is naïve to an almost offensive degree. When daddy finally sits her down to explain How The World Really Works—a scene that may earn Gere an Oscar nomination—we lose all sympathy for her.

Arbitrage isn’t particularly groundbreaking; the plot isn’t far from a Law & Order episode. But the acting is quite good, with fine work by Gere, Sarandon, Tim Roth, Nate Parker and Stuart Margolin. And the mystery plays out in a deft manner that’s totally satisfying (and, not so surprisingly, owes a lot to Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton).