March 16

Filmlab: Best finance movies of all time – 8. Arbitrage

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, no film has captured the ambivalent mood of the new recession better than Arbitrage. Revolving around a billionaire investment fund manager whose perfect-from-the-outside life is privately spiraling out of control, Nicholas Jarecki’s sleek thriller reflects the morning-after regret and reluctant-to-change nature of ‘The Great Hangover’ – the epoch-defining title Vanity Fair assigned its 2010 compendium of essays exploring the too-big-to-fail ethos of an economic system that repeatedly suffers through the after-effects of ruination instead of fundamentally changing its modus operandi.

At the film’s centre is a never-better Richard Gere, his squinty-eyed acting style assiduously, astutely and, at times, ironically deployed to play Robert Miller, a man whose ability to make a killing during the subprime mortgage disaster by betting against the housing boom has earned him the nickname ‘the Oracle of Gracie Square’ – a sly nod by Jarecki to real-life billionaire business magnates Warren Buffet (‘the Oracle of Omaha’) and Michael Bloomberg (a Gracie Square resident while serving three terms as New York City mayor). Miller’s prophetic profiteering has made him a Forbes cover-star, but he’s as susceptible to the manic lure of money as everyone else: blinded by his own hubris, he’s let a too-good-to-be-true investment opportunity cloud his judgment, creating a $412 million hole in his company’s books that he’s decided to fraudulently plug by attempting to sell up to a bank without disclosing the toxicity of his assets.

All this has already happened by the movie’s opening, ensuring that Gere’s perma-squint can be read as both the practiced public face of a scrupulous financial sage, hitherto known for bringing the chaos of the markets into clearer focus, and the wincing private glare of a Bernie Madoff-style robber baron, barely holding it together as he attempts to negotiate the cold-light-of-day consequences of his orgiastic greed. The film’s success in evincing the uncertainty of our fiscally volatile age (Arbitrage was first released in 2013) lies in its ability to shine its soft lighting on such ambiguity. In lieu of actual capital, confidence is shown to be Miller’s chief commodity and, as his illegal, ass-covering business deal is further threatened by a Chappaquiddick-style car crash that leaves his French mistress dead and the police sniffing around his affairs, his amoral exploitation of that confidence becomes his greatest flaw – and his greatest strength.

This is where the metaphorical significance of the title starts to pay off for Jarecki. Miller has made his fortune arbitraging deals, taking advantage of differing prices in different markets to simultaneously buy low and sell high – an ostensibly risk-free investment strategy, until it’s not, until some unforeseen event (like an unfriendly government suddenly putting the brakes on exporting copper from an under-exploited Russian mine) makes it impossible to get the money out. It’s an exercise in high-stakes plate spinning, one that Miller has extended across his entire life, whether it’s dealing with his family (exploiting their affinity for the luxurious lifestyle he’s made available to them in order to profit from the patriarchal power this in turn affords him) or his mounting legal woes as he weighs up the penalties of coming clean about the accident against the consequences of a business deal that’s almost certain to fail should news of the car crash leak out.

But even as Miller’s world necessarily wobbles, Jarecki – whose parents were Wall Street traders – is too shrewd to supply us with an easy come-uppance. In a key scene, a schlubby police detective (played by Tim Roth) rails against the way guys like Miller – be they the ‘Masters of the Universe’ of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, or the one percenters flying their Gulfstream jets to marketing meetings – have spent years out-lawyering and out-spending the authorities to avoid jail time. “Where’s the consequence?” he asks. Where, indeed? His frustration is our frustration – at the likes of Miller, able to bluff and buy their way out of trouble, but also at a world in which eye-bulging outrage at such injustice is now simultaneously offset by the futility of knowing that it was always thus.

Alistair Harkness, Film Critic, The Scotsman, 16 March 2014