Although the writer-director takes the title of his film from one of those clever stock manipulations that wheeler dealers in the financial racket employ to make millions of dollars, "Arbitrage," curiously, never shows any of that practice. Instead, the movie concentrates on just the sort of conniving that even a novice recognizes, a simple custom familiar to any of those small-business owners the major parties now so obsequiously court — keeping two sets of books. That scheme essentially drives the major action of the picture and preoccupies its protagonist, Robert Miller (Richard Gere), so fully that it eventually threatens the stability of every part of his life.
The multimillionaire head of a hugely profitable hedge fund, Miller flies into the plot on a sleek corporate jet, fretting to his associate about a deal that has fallen through and the delay in a plan to sell his business to another fat cat. That particular deal will obsess him throughout the course of the film, interrupted only by a tragedy that overshadows but never entirely obliterates his fixation on making several hundred million dollars.
Miller enjoys all the perquisites of the good life — a splendid home on Central Park, the attentions of a squad of servants, chauffeured limousines to waft him around Manhattan, a loving wife (Susan Sarandon), and a bright daughter (Brit Marling) who occupies an important position in his business. On top of all that, he has provided his demanding mistress, a French artist named Julie (Laetitia Casta) with an expensive apartment and even established her in her own gallery to display her paintings.
Despite all that, Robert Miller is a desperate man, frantically trying to hold off creditors, placate clients, and find a way to conceal the fact that he has been cooking the firm's books, covering up deficits and faking payments. He knows that if his deal falls through an audit will reveal his manipulations, leaving him open to criminal charges of fraud. Just as his financial world teeters on the verge of collapse, his personal life falls apart — in a shocking moment, he falls asleep at the wheel while driving Julie upstate, overturning the car in an accident.
The rest of the picture shows Miller staving off destruction and the prospect of criminal charges for both his fraudulent dealings and his culpability in the accident. While he tries to manage two separate cover-ups, a Detective Bryer (an unlikely Tim Roth), sure of his guilt, pursues a relentless investigation, intimidating his friend Jimmy Grant (Nate Parker), the son of Miller's former chauffeur, who rescued him after the accident. Although the primary financial plot keeps thickening around Miller, the detective's cat-and-mouse techniques, which lead Jimmy to a grand jury, lead to a surprising and oddly satisfying conclusion.
Despite the clear presentation of Miller's chicanery and a whole spectrum of betrayals, the movie sustains its tension remarkably well, even enlisting the viewer's grudging sympathy for this slick operator dancing on the edge of a precipice, facing imprisonment for two separate and unrelated crimes. With his hard-driving single-mindedness, his glib handling of the detective, his slick facility with the recalcitrant representatives of his prospective buyer, his skillful negotiations, his assumed air of nonchalance, Gere suggests some complexity within this superficially negative character. He may embody some of the best known traits of Bernie Madoff and Gordon Gecko (with overtones of Donald Trump), but he also at times seems a victim of his own schemes and even of his own success.
"Arbitrage" only touches on what surely should be a major thematic element, the inequities of wealth and class that enable a man like Robert Miller to succeed. One understated moment juxtaposes detective Bryer vainly trying to question Susan Sarandon's character as she blithely enters her limo with the next scene, in which he and his partner summarily scoop Jimmy Grant off a Harlem Street; Bryer even complains to a judge about the rich escaping justice, and he's right. As a character in a novel by one of my favorite authors puts it, "There's no honest way in America to make a hundred million dollars." And he's right, too.