ASPEN - Early in "Arbitrage," Robert Miller, a spectacularly rich New York financier played by Richard Gere, tells an interviewer that he learned early on that "world events all revolved around five things: 'M.O.N.E.Y.'" The interviewer guesses that the quip came from Economics 101. No, Robert says: it was in fifth grade.
It was, indeed, one of those lessons a person absorbs early enough that it becomes part of his foundation. In the first feature by writer-director Nicholas Jarecki (the brother of documentary filmmakers Andrew and Eugene Jarecki), Robert Miller has placed money and only money on his personal altar. Family, honesty, charity, the law and friendship all are ultimately sacrificed in this financial thriller of Wall Street maneuvering and mainstream ethics, reminiscent of "The Bonfire of the Vanities." (It's critical to mention that this comparison is to Tom Wolfe's 1987 novel, and not to the disastrous 1990 film adaptation. "Arbitrage" is far better than the screen version of "The Bonfire of the Vanities," though that is an easy bar to clear.)
Gere is in his typical form here, thoughtful, confident, in control. So when he gives his interview, Miller conveys the sense of a healthy relationship with money. Soon after, Miller is toasted at a small birthday party at his tastefully magnificent Upper East Side apartment. In his speech, he makes brief note of his material accomplishments, but vows that what he is most proud of is the family gathered around him, especially his chic, capable wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon) and his daughter Brooke (Brit Marling), the brainy beauty who helps run his business.
As slickly convincing as Miller might be, it's a pile of b.s. In fact, he's having an affair with a woman, Julie (Laetitia Casta) who he has set up in the art gallery business. His firm is on the brink of collapse - not because of the recession, but because of a risky gamble he made on a Russian copper mine. To keep alive the nearly completed sale of the company, which would wash away his financial sins, Miller has secretly falsified the books - an action that puts his daughter, the chief information officer of Miller Capital, in severe ethical and career jeopardy.
"Arbitrage" earns its complexity from how Miller's moral failures play out on multiple levels. While he's finagling the numbers on the business end, he shows a similar moral looseness outside the office. Facing a tragedy of a more personal nature, he calls on Jimmy (Nate Parker, in a strong performance), the 20-ish son of Miller's former employee, to do a favor. Miller has overlooked the fact that Jimmy already has a criminal record, that chances are good that Jimmy will get caught, that Jimmy, as a black kid with a history, is going to come under heavy scrutiny. As it turns out, there's a cop (played by Tim Roth) on the case who's got a thing for making sure the wealthy don't get away with their crimes.
"Arbitrage" shows through Monday at Aspen's Wheeler Opera House; next Saturday, Nov. 10, the Wheeler presents a one-night encore of "The Queen of Versailles," the excellent documentary about a phenomenally wealthy couple whose dreams of building the biggest residence in the U.S. collapses along with the economy. The two films complement one another well; both show how the pursuit of money - not just enough money, or lots of money, but loads and loads of money - has become so ingrained and so acceptable as a value that the people doing so don't even come off as greedy.
Robert Miller - like David Siegel, the time-share king in "The Queen of Versailles" - doesn't seem especially materialistic. Nor is he in the mold of "Wall Street"'s Gordon Gekko, using dollars to keep score and crush competitors. As Miller explains, he's got responsibilities; all the lying and hiding were for the good of his family, his employees, his company.
On Wall Street, arbitrage is the business of taking advantage of differences in market prices: buy low over here, sell for a little higher over there. "Arbitrage" is about a moral gap - between the internal stories we use to justify our actions, and the deeds which look a lot different, and have a whole other set of consequences, when they play out in the world.