"Arbitrage" is not about Jack Abramoff, or Bernie Madoff or even Mitt Romney. But resemblances between any one of them and the film's protagonist, Robert Miller (Richard Gere), are hardly coincidental. Miller is a stand-in for a whole class of people — the 1% of the 1% of the 1% — to wit, Wall Street. He is what Tom Wolfe labeled a "Master of the Universe" in his novel "The Bonfire of the Vanities" — with which "Arbitrage" shares a number of plot elements.
Miller runs a highflying investment fund. He is, we are told, a billionaire, and he certainly lives like one, with a chauffeur, a huge New York townhouse, a beautiful, levelheaded wife (Susan Sarandon), and a beautiful, not-so-levelheaded mistress (Laetitia Casta). The last is a sack of trouble waiting to happen: She believes he will someday slough off his wife to be with her.
Miller is used to being able to fix anything: A buyer is hesitating to seal a deal to purchase Miller's company; and Miller has smoothly bribed and sweet-talked key people to help cover up a slight irregularity in the books — a missing 400 million dollars. But all the charm, ingenuity and palm-greasing in the world isn't going to help him when he becomes a suspect in a very different kind of crime — the kind that involves physical mayhem.
He may think he is handling the situation with his usual slickness, but he has had to involve an old sort-of-friend (Nate Parker), who is in a much more vulnerable position. And NYPD Det. Bryer (Tim Roth, channeling Peter Falk's Columbo, but with an undercurrent of class-based fury) knows Miller is guilty and is willing to go to almost any length to ensure that, for once, a self-assured fat cat isn't going to slip out of the rap by using money as a lubricant.
Young documentary director Nicholas Jarecki makes an assured fictional film debut with "Arbitrage," which he also wrote. Among other things, he has cast his story perfectly, not least of all with Gere, who could play this sort of character in his sleep but instead tackles it with all his resources.
Early in his career, his tough-guy face and East Coast accent made him a natural for blue-collar roles, so it was a bit surprising when he transitioned with equal comfort as a well-to-do, perfectly turned-out smoothie in films like "Power," "Pretty Woman" and "The Hoax." In the last of these, as in "Arbitrage," he drew on his ability to make a potentially loathsome character somehow charming without a complete whitewash.
That accomplishment may rankle some. If "Arbitrage" were the real world, most of us would relish the notion of such an arrogant liar ending up behind bars. Gere's character is, after all, probably within the top rank of those who crashed the U.S. economy four years ago. Gere — frequently conveying several internal layers through his face alone — makes us root for him, even as we despise everything he represents.
Amazingly, Gere has never been even nominated for an Oscar. It's impossible to know for sure until the smoke from the end-of-the-year stampede of awards bait clears on New Years Day, but this performance should be a contender.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).