Saturday, September 15, 2012

Arbitrage [2012]

MPAA (R)  Roger Ebert (4 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing -
Roger Ebert's review -

Arbitrage (written and directed by Nicholas Jarecki) is about a fictional Wall Street financier named Robert Miller (played by Richard Gere) who's had a lot on his mind.  He's been trying to sell his company, quickly, before the feds discover a $400 million hole in its books.  He's got a beautiful wife of his same age named Ellen (played by Susan Sarandon), a beautiful daughter named Brooke (played by Brit Marling) in her late 20s or early 30s who both loves/worships him and now works for him as his company's CFO.  And, of course, he has a mistress, Julie Cote (played by Laetitia Casta) who's younger than his wife / older than his daughter, somewhat and  perhaps necessarily insecure, who's a transplant from Paris and who he's been both helping and "helping" set up an art gallery in New York.

Miller's a classic "A-personality" top-dog Wall Street honcho.  Yes, he's been "juggling a lot of balls in the air" and for sometime.  Yes, he has that $400 million deficit in his books that's been weighing him down.  Maintaining both a family and mistress has not been easy -- near the beginning of the film, it's "poor Robert's" birthday and we see him finding a way of celebrating his birthday with _both_ his loving/adoring family _and_ (separately) with his mistress (kinda exhausting ...) -- but he's been managing to pull it off.  If he could just get the buyers of his firm _to sign_.  But being big egoed, "A-personality" Wall Street honchos themselves and perhaps sensing that Miller seems uncharacteristically anxious to get their deal done, they make it a point of "taking the air out of the ball" and "taking their time ..."

It's in this situation that Miller makes a mistake.  Tied-up by representatives of the firm that he's been negotiating with to buy his firm, he finds himself terribly late to a "gallery showing" that his mistress was holding.  Feeling guilty (or perhaps simply feeling that he might lose the mistress) after arriving so late to her event, he promises her that right after the event finishes he'd take her, right then and there, away for a couple of days to "someplace nice" in upstate New York / New England.  Excited, and besides the event was winding down, she chases the remaining few guests, mostly friends, out of the gallery so that she and Robert can head-off on their "lost day or two."  BUT ... it's been a _really long day_ and as has been clear, Robert's been burning the candle at both ends.  SO ... somewhere along the way (it's the middle of the night...) he doses off at the wheel and flips the car after crashing it into an embankment along the side of the road.  Having been wearing a seat-belt, he himself suffered no major injury BUT ... his mistress having been sleeping leaned against his side apparently was thrown around in the car during the accident... and as a result was KILLED INSTANTLY.

What now?  The rest of the story becomes Bernie Madoff meets Ted Kennedy/Chappaquiddick meets Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment meets Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors [1989].  Realizing that his life is over if he stays at the scene of the accident, Miller leaves the scene, calls, using a pay-phone the son of a loyal and recently deceased employee of his (the son of this former employee is played by Nate Parker) and has this person drive him back home to the city.  The next day he talks to his lawyer who tries to pursuade him to turn himself into the police telling him that "all" could "still be explained" but with each hour, and certainly with each day, things would get much worse for him.  HOWEVER, Robert has got to sell that company and is afraid that the publicity from this new accident/scandal would cause the buyers to really dig in their heels and perhaps even walk away from their deal completely and THEN he'd be dead financially for having mismanaged his firm.  So he CAN'T go to the Police right away ...

But the police, of course, soon come to him.  It was MILLER'S CAR that crashed on the road after all.  And there was a dead body in it.  So Detective Michael Bryer (played by Tim Roth) and his partner Detective Mills (played by Curtiss Cook) soon come calling asking pointed questions.  The rest of the movie becomes, of course, "Can he (Miller) get away with it ...?" and then, what about all the other things, "can he get away with those as well ...?"

A number of critics have noted their unease over watching this movie in which the viewer is arguably manipulated into at least partly "sympathizing with a lout" (and worse ... sympathizing with a criminal, well groomed and wealthy though he may be).  At least one critic noted that a film like this would not have been possible under the pre-1960s "Production Code" (which had been championed by the Catholic Church in the United States) under which a film's resolution had to be absolutely clear that "crime does not pay" and Good always ultimately triumphs over Evil.

Yet this is not the only film, both recent and not so recent, that has been pointedly ambiguous in this regard.  One simply thinks of Oliver Stone's recent film Savages [2012], where viewers are asked to sympathize with "the struggles" of three aggressively hedonistic American "boutique/'medical' marijuana growers" fighting off a "hostile takeover" by a Mexican drug cartel.  (I found it amusing that even the Mexican thugs in the film expressed their own disgust with the American trio's quite literally "all for one and _one_ for all" lifestyle calling them at one point "savages").  Then there was the documentary about the real estate mogul David Siegel and his wife called Queen of Versailles [2012] where, granted Siegel didn't _murder_ anyone but his whole fortune was built on getting relatively simple people to buy "time share" property that they really didn't need and couldn't really afford.  Finally, there have been famously morally ambiguous films about "blue collar" protagonist/criminals like Robert DeNiro's character in Taxi Driver [1976].

So yes, while I understand the moral discomfort while watching a film like this, it's actually nothing new.  And I would add that some of the "sympathy for the Devil" in the person of Robert Miller that we may feel may be the result of our realization that we do, even if grudgingly, appreciate his predicament.  Often, we too, "juggle many balls in the air," and find ourselves at times in situations ON ACCOUNT OF BAD CHOICES (often SINS) that we honestly never expected.  So even if we don't particularly _like_ him (and at times _hate_ him) we can grudgingly _understand_ him. 

Hopefully then the film is of some value helping us to (1) to appreciate how we can _all_ find ourselves "over our heads" when we _choose_ to walk off the right path (when we choose to sin), (2) to appreciate that our sins more or less inevitably come to effect others and (3) to have at least some compassion towards those who do Fall.  Most of us will never be as rich as Miller.  But we can appreciate how he got into the Hell that he that he found himself in.

A final question: What of the us the "little people" who often end up being crushed by the mistakes of the "titans" like Miller?  Don't we deserve some compassion as well?

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