Don't let the topical title fool you: "Arbitrage," starring Richard Gere as a risk-addicted Wall Streeter, isn't interested in how America's wealthiest businessmen wrecked our economy. Instead, the film uses the formula of an old-fashioned thriller to answer deeper questions: Who are these guys, and what drove them to do it?
"Arbitrage" opens with Robert Miller (Gere) sitting for a television interview, looking well-coiffed and unscathed by the economic collapse. It turns out he's actually running Miller Capital as a giant Ponzi scheme and hoping to sell it before anyone gets wise. Even his CFO, Brooke (Brit Marling), doesn't know -- and she's his daughter. Robert's other secret: Julie (Laetitia Casta), an unstable, art-world mistress.
Faster than you can say Chappaquiddick, Miller is looking at a wrecked car and a dead body, and his first call is to an unlikely friend, Jimmy (Nate Parker), a young black kid who owes Robert a debt of gratitude. Now Robert is dodging a dogged cop (Tim Roth, amusingly rumpled and grumbling) while also chasing an elusive buyer for his company (Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, perfectly cast) and placating his wife, Ellen (the wondrous Susan Sarandon, in her third film this year).
Subtly written and confidently directed by first-timer Nicholas Jarecki (the brother of documentary filmmakers Eugene and Andrew), "Arbitrage" gets away with a few crime-flick cliches because it's also a thoughtful character study. Gere gives this fraudulent kabillionaire such warmth and charm that we actually start rooting for him: Isn't he just another stressed-out breadwinner trying to get ahead?
"I'm a patriarch," Robert explains when finally cornered. "It's my role, I have to play it." He's quite convincing until someone points out a small problem with his grand scheme: "It's illegal." We kind of forgot that, too.
PLOT A highflying financier teeters on the edge of ruin.
RATING R (language, sexuality, brief violence)
PLAYING AT Cinema Arts Centre, Huntington; Malverne Cinema 4; and Manhasset Cinemas
BOTTOM LINE A smart, fast-moving thriller that also examines the slippery morals among America's 1 percent. Gere's understated performance is terrific.