Arbitrage (R) (107 min.) — Not every movie about high-wire finance and ethical costs must be a preachy documentary or overreaching drama. Sometimes we just want to watch real or fictional fat cats squirm, the way Dynasty and Dallas toyed with our economic envy in the 1980s.
Richard Gere knows how to play suave shysters, and hedge fund manager Robert Miller is a pip. Robert is on the verge of selling the business he built from scratch for a fortune but needs to keep the books cooked long enough for auditors to approve the deal. Even his accountant — who is also his daughter, Brooke (Brit Marling) — knows nothing about the scheme; insiders who do have a windfall coming if it works.
Meanwhile, Robert's personal life is just as deceptive. He's married to Ellen (Susan Sarandon), who knows Robert is unfaithful but wealth has a way of blurring truth. Arbitrage hits its stride when Robert's indiscretions collide, in a tragic event compounded by his determination to maintain an upright image. The mess gets stirred by a rumpled detective (Tim Roth) itching to put a rich guy in jail.
Writer-director Nicholas Jarecki expertly tightens the screws on Robert, briskly explaining his financial shenanigans and embracing juicy details of his scandalous side. Gere is in top form, flashing a winning smile while his eyes reveal a mind racing for the next loophole to leap through. There's something Hitchcockian about Robert's dilemma, except such films usually focused upon nice guys in a bind. Robert isn't a nice guy, but we root for him anyway, against our better judgment.
Arbitrage is a classy soap opera with a charismatic louse at its center, without Margin Call didactics, or the misplaced empathy of The Company Men. The tangled web Robert weaves is purely for our voyeuristic amusement, and not an indictment of the system making such moves possible. It's simply good trash. You get the feeling that J.R. Ewing would approve. B+ (Tampa Theatre)
Steve Persall, Times movie critic