Remember when Richard Gere played a cutthroat businessman intent on acquiring a family business in a hostile takeover and that leggy prostitute helped him out in innumerable ways? Arbitrage, writer/director Nicholas Jarecki’s sleek, taut drama about a financial tycoon trying to unload his over-valued family business in a shady deal, could be viewed as the true sequel to the charming American lie that was Pretty Woman. As hedge fund genius Robert Miller, Gere plays essentially the same confident, aggressive guy, except that the silvered version of Pretty Woman‘s foxy Edward Lewis no longer gets confused about the nonsense of love being more valuable than money. He is meaner than Edward, but of course, now that the economic bubble has burst, so is the world.
Robert, who sometimes refers to himself as the Oracle, and on one occasion, rather desperately and strangely, as “a patriarch,” is the kingpin of a financial trading company valued at somewhere between $600 and $400 million, although as we learn in the movie’s first few minutes, Miller Capital isn’t really worth much at all; Robert borrowed $400 million from a friend to cover some gaping holes in his books, holes acquired by dabbling in a copper mill in Russia.
So we meet this cool customer at a time when he’s finally broken a sweat. Jarecki whisks us from private plane to chic corporate offices and then to Robert’s Manhattan home, a luxurious town house with an epic stairwell chandelier nearly as tall as the financial tales Robert spins, showing us first how familiar Robert is with always being a few steps ahead of everyone else. The movie’s drama intensifies after a harrowing twist that has everyone and everything nipping hard at Robert’s heels.
But in the movie’s early stretches, Robert isn’t panicking. All he needs to do to stay afloat is to get Miller Capital’s prospective buyer (Vanity Fair’s Graydon Carter, having a grand time), who has suddenly become elusive, to sign off on the sales agreement before anyone notices that the books have been cooked. Then all will be well. His wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon) can still run her charity foundation, his smart daughter Brooke (a poised Brit Marling) will continue on her own path to financial wizardry and Robert will have more time for habits like swilling scotch and appeasing his demanding French mistress (Laetitia Casta, who pouts almost as much as she did playing Brigitte Bardot in Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life).
You may be worried that Arbitrage will require you to be on high alert for complex business dealings, a la Margin Call, or bring you down by reminding you, once again, of America’s fundamental financial crisis and how the rich always seem to get richer while you sweat the oil bills and the insurance premiums. There is certainly some of the latter, but Arbitrage has enough in common with Law & Order to make it digestible for the masses. One fateful night, on an outing that would make the pre-Megan Don Draper proud, Robert makes a mistake that could have serious consequences for the sale, for his family, really for every aspect of his future. Suddenly the secret of his morally corrupt business is threatened by a morally corrupt personal decision, and instead of focusing solely on dodging the Federal Trade Commission, Robert also has to cope with a dogged New York City detective (the excellent Tim Roth).
(SEE: Where and why Gere landed on TIME’s list of 10 Innocents Abroad)
Arbitrage is the first feature for writer/director Jarecki (his credits include a short film and a documentary) but filmmaking is the family business. He’s the younger brother of directors Andrew Jarecki (Capturing the Friedmans, All Good Things) and Eugene Jarecki (Freakonomics, Why We Fight). Not long after he graduated from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Nicholas Jarecki interviewed a series of hot directors for a book he called Breaking In: How 20 Film Directors Got Their Start. Based on all the strong performances and twisty but cohesive plotting—when Robert is in the depths of trouble, Jarecki introduces a fresh layer of mystery in the form of a young black man named Jimmy (Nate Parker) from Harlem—he absorbed a lot of their expertise. I’d also hazard a guess Jarecki read Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities at some pivotal point in his life.
Parker, who played the cutest pilot in the awful Red Tails, does strong supporting work as Jimmy, an honorable man sucked into a dishonorable world. So does Sarandon, who has some wonderful, fiery moments playing on-screen wife to Gere for the second time (they co-starred in Shall We Dance), although she’s not the first person I’d cast to play a woman who thrusts lap dogs into servant’s arms. (Sarandon’s natural Earth Mother qualities tend to seep out, as in a scene where Ellen exercises braless. Note to wardrobe: what were you thinking? And I hung on every dry and worldly wise word out of the mouth of Stuart Margolin, who plays the family fixer Syd Felder.
(SEE: Where Susan Sarandon falls on TIME’s list of celebrity protestors)
But the main reason to see Arbitrage is Gere, whose steady improvement with age (he just turned 63) is not remarked upon enough. In recent years he starred in Hachi: A Dog’s Tale (so devastating it makes Old Yeller seem like a walk in the emotional park), the farcical political story The Hunting Party and The Hoax, a clever tale of literary lies and in the bad cop drama Brooklyn’s Finest. All were fine performances, but all received scant attention. (To be fair, in the same five year stretch Gere was also in the more high profile, and lousy, movies Amelia and Nights in Rodanthe.)
(READ: TIME’s review of The Hoax)
The beauty of his skillful Arbitrage performance lies in how uncompromising it is. You don’t like 1 percenter Robert Miller, even if you admire his ability to get things done, and enjoy, perversely, his oblivion to the 99 percent. “What’s an Applebee’s?” he says at one point, just as blithely as Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess says “What’s a weekend?” You’re not remotely on his side, the way you inevitably are when you’re watching, say George Clooney, but you want to stay by his side, both to watch every nasty little maneuver Robert employs to save his own skin and in the hopes that someone will trip him up. Gere is being talked about as an Oscar contender—he’s never been nominated. January is a long time off yet, but his name is certainly worth putting on the long list.