When it comes to the Richard Gere-Susan Sarandon quasi thriller Arbitrage, I really feel like I have to hedge my bets when it comes to a review (cue rim shot). On the one hand, it’s a slick film in some of the good ways Hollywood films used to be slick, sort of fun in a pulp-y, trashy novel sort of way and, come on, you get to see the not done yet Gere and Sarandon strut their acting chops, clearly having a blast doing it. On the other hand, even though its slickness gives off the veneer of a movie that is meant to be pure entertainment and basically harmless, it wears a world view on its sleeve that is hard to ignore and is so cynical that it sucks much of the fun out of things.
The story surrounds Gere, a crooked financier, who is racing the clock to complete a multi- million dollar deal for his hedge fund company before the outside world finds out his empire is all a phony house of cards that he’s been lying about, Bernie Madoff style. There’s also the complication of a car crash that kills his mistress, a crash Gere walks away from and is also desperately trying to cover up until he completes the big deal. All this doesn’t really give anything away since the movie’s story telling twist is that the audience knows everything and all the characters pretty much know everything, too. It’s just a question of whether or not the rich guy can beat the system or not. It’s also a question of whether or not any of the characters, even one, can resist the lure of money and remain uncompromised as Gere’s shadiness touches them.
There is some fun stuff in this movie. One of the interesting things in watching it is realizing that this exact same film could have and probably would have been made circa 1987-1993, and with the exact same cast. And not just the stars, but right down to smaller roles played by the likes of Stuart Margolin, Bruce Altman, Tim Roth and even Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter. The difference, of course, is that in today’s world where everything that comes out is either part of a mega franchise, is a cartoon, or is a tiny indie darling, this movie is the tiny indie darling. In 1992, this would have been a big Hollywood production where the stars got paid and the studio rolled out the big ad campaign.
The other difference is that while in 1992, while some of the themes Arbitrage so stridently explores might have been portrayed on the fringe, it would have mostly been made as a slick mystery. In 2012, with the financial messes and moral outrages that go along with them front and center, Arbitrage falls into the cynical trap of saying that if you have money, you by definition must have made some serious moral compromises along the way. Every character in this movie, when faced between a moment when they can “do the right thing” or take the cash, takes the cash. Every time.
One of the phrases that has worked its way into my lexicon over the past couple of weeks with some of the political stuff and turmoil going on in the world has been “moral equivalency”. (Hey, I’m not proud of it, it just happened). In the world of Arbitrage, I really can’t tell if the message is that it’s OK to assume that everyone who has money got it in a sneaky way, or if the message is that when faced with the lure and temptation of money, we’d all sell out in our own way. Either way it’s a pretty bleak way to look at things. The big problem is that the movie comes dangerously close to putting the decision of a guy covering up his responsibility for a woman’s death in the same ballpark as a person looking the other way to protect a family member. It’s a false moral equivalency (I just wanted to say it again). I mean, look, it’s just a movie, but it leaves you feeling a little jaded when a movie is so simple minded as to basically say “all rich folks are crooked and shady”.
One of the great pro wrestling characters of all time was a guy named Ted DiBiase, who was known as The Million Dollar Man. He had his own personal valet and he’d “pay” plants from the crowd to do things like kiss his feet for $100. He’d then cackle and explain to all the peons in the crowd that, “Everybody has a price.” The Million Dollar Man, of course, was essentially a cartoon character meant to get a rise out of a crowd, which he did.
Maybe Arbitrage is meant to just get a little rise out of us. If so, OK, I guess. I had a lot of fun in sections of the film, in almost a nostalgic sort of way, watching Sarandon and Gere tear it up onscreen. There was a particular scene near the end where Sarandon’s character completely eviscerates Gere’s character, as she reveals she’s been wise to him the whole time, both in regard to the car crash and his bullshit persona. It’s great fun, old school scene chewing acting. There’s quite a bit of that sort of fun in this film, almost enough to recommend it. A lot more of that and a little less moralizing would have gone a long, long way to making this the popcorn thriller it could have (and should have) been.