Intelligently engaging the zeitgeist without sacrificing suspense, Arbitrage arrives as one of the year’s most undervalued assets. Not only is it an absorbing, tightly paced thriller, it’s also a better movie version of The Bonfire of the Vanities than Brian De Palma’s film. The parallels are strong enough that Tom Wolfe could sue: Richard Gere plays Robert Miller, a Wall Street big shot whose universe-mastery has slipped. Combining attributes of Sherman McCoy and Bernie Madoff, the financier has just days to sell his company before a friend withdraws a $400 million loan papering over a loss. Soon a car accident on a late-night drive with his mistress (Laetitia Casta) ensures that if Robert doesn’t go to jail for fraud, he might do time for manslaughter.
Gere, giving one of his most charismatic yet layered performances, invites simultaneous awe and revulsion as the character buys or bargains his way out of Dodge, making unconvincing excuses to a detective (Tim Roth) who’s clearly on to him. If the movie, directed by Nicholas Jarecki (brother of filmmakers Eugene and Andrew), lacks Bonfire’s scope and equal-opportunity contempt, it has a more complex take on finance, depicted as a culture of endemic backslapping and elaborate charlatanism. There’s also a more acid take on racism. (Miller doesn’t hit an African-American with his car, but he instinctively calls Nate Parker’s Jimmy to help him out of an emergency.) The family angle is somewhat shortchanged, particularly in clarifying the cognisance of Susan Sarandon’s Ruth Madoff clone. But there’s a bracing toughness to the film’s upshot: No other ending makes sense. Ben Kenigsberg