It's impossible to talk about Arbitrage without talking about Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe's interrogation of the moral core of 1980s Wall Street. Arbitrage attempts a similar reckoning of our current financial climate, through a lens focused on one slimy, duplicitous hedge fund manager.
The film opens on a warm family scene: Dead-eyed Robert (Richard Gere) shares a birthday dinner with his wife and children, reveling in the love of his family and the imminent sale of his company. It's an enviable, candle-lit vision of the good life — and its hollowness is quickly revealed when Robert dashes off for a visit with his gap-toothed French mistress.
Robert's business dealings are as shady as his personal ones, turns out, and he's eager to sell his company before anyone realizes he's been cooking the books. An accident and a cover-up straight from the pages of Bonfire further undo Robert's good-guy facade; when he implicates a young black man in his crimes — a man whose goal of owning a fast-food restaurant is seriously jeopardized by his involvement with Robert — it becomes clear that Robert's only loyalty is to his money. Rich people are the worst.
Arbitrage is so schematic it might as well come with a set of blueprints; every plot point loudly transmits its real-world application. There's not a trace of ambiguity or moral complexity here — the takeaway is simply that cause and effect function differently for rich people. Money simultaneously justifies all of Robert's actions and insulates him from their consequences. Arbitrage's observations are maddening, certainly, but also hard to recommend, unless for some reason you're trying to reinforce your cynicism.
Four years after the economy collapsed, Wall Street is doing just fine — it's everyone else who's still struggling, trying to fill the gap where the middle class used to be.
Yes, the film functions as a reminder that rich people play by different rules than the rest of us. But so did watching the Republican National Convention, so does reading a newspaper, and so does being a reasonably attentive member of society. Arbitrage conveys a sense of futility in the face of privilege, but not a whole lot else.
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