'Arbitrage': Sympathy for the devil ★★★

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'Arbitrage'

'Arbitrage' (September 12, 2012)

It's an unseemly request by a movie, to ask us to root for the lying, scrambling but extremely well-coiffed hedge fund billionaire weasel played by Richard Gere in the new film "Arbitrage." But there it is. The movie does ask, and to varying degrees, we comply.

The website Investopedia defines "arbitrage" this way: "The simultaneous purchase and sale of an asset in order to profit from a difference in the price. It is a trade that profits by exploiting price differences of identical or similar financial instruments, on different markets or in different forms."

Did you know that's what "arbitrage" meant? I did not. And yet I enjoyed it, even as I hustled here and there to keep up with its Wall Street argot. The writing's juicy and effective, and the actors have fun with it.

Writer-director Nicholas Jarecki treats most every character as a smart person with something to say. His film is full of tense, vicious dialogue spit out by rich and poor alike (the middle class goes missing here, as is its wont in the country itself) while under extreme financial and legal duress.

Gere is the centerpiece in "Arbitrage," and his preoccupied, distracted air as an actor (which can lead to pure laziness when he's not engaged by the material) works extremely well in the role of the Wall Street investor who is having a fraught 60th birthday week. His investment in a Russian copper mine has gone bust. Hundreds of millions, kaput. His cocaine-addled mistress is making demands. His auditors are getting wind of possible large-scale fraud. His own daughter, the company's chief financial officer played by Brit Marling, doesn't like what she's finding in her own internal audit. The wizard's wife (Susan Sarandon) can't seem to get a check out of him to pay for a pet charity cause. What is happening here?

A lot: "Arbitrage" kills off one character, necessitating a coverup. This brings into the story a police detective played, or rather, sneered, by Tim Roth, wondering if Gere's smoothie is hiding a thing or two. Of course he is; we know he is, right from the start. Part "Law & Order" morality play, part "Wall Street" with a dash of the more recent and topically pertinent "Margin Call," "Arbitrage" hums along, complicating its narrative without tying itself in knots.

Gere delivers one of his most quick-witted performances; if it were any less astute, in fact, you'd be rooting for his character's violent comeuppance 30 seconds into the picture.

mjphillips@tribune.com

'Arbitrage' -- 3 stars

MPAA rating: R (for language, brief violent images and drug use)

Running time: 1:40

Opens: Friday

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