Saturday, September 22, 2012

Arbitrage (and some words about The Words)

                      Integrity, Anyone? … Anyone? … ?
                                               Review by Ken Burke
Just because you’re filthy rich, you need to make a shady business deal, and you’re hiding your involvement in a car-crash crime doesn’t make you a bad person, does it?

            Robert Miller (Richard Gere), the principal (but not principled) character in Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage (a financial term for making a profit while simultaneously buying and selling something) says that “The competition for the limited amount out there can make a person manic.”  Obviously Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan haven’t concerned themselves with the manic aspect of their love for Ayn Rand über-capitalism because they’re focused on the 53% of Americans who don’t feel “entitled” to food and health care, the ones who just go out and take it from the rest of us.  Miller doesn’t see that he’s taking anything improperly from anyone, he’s just running a highly successful business in Manhattan, the economic capitol of the world, where he’d like to rake in a bit more capital by selling his company to another fat cat.  The only problem is that he’s secretly diverted millions of company money to a “sure thing” copper mine in Russia which has become bogged down in complications, including getting the cash back out of the country, leaving Miller with a $412 million hole in his cooked books.  Now things are getting tense in his penthouse world because the colleague who surreptitiously bankrolled him enough to keep his audit temporarily clean wants his loan back, the deal is being stalled by the potential buyer trying to get the purchase price down while a more thorough audit is looming close enough to sour the deal, Miller’s CFO—his daughter, Brooke (Brit Marling)—is stumbling onto suspicious ledger entries with meager explanations from Dad, and, just to make things even more interesting, Miller tries to escape his problems for a night with his pouty French mistress, Julie Cote (Laetitia Casta), but while driving her car into rural upstate NY he dozes, flips the car, she dies, the car goes up in flames, he runs, and the noose begins to tighten as he tries to simultaneously untangle himself from all of this misery while keeping some sense of family unity with an increasingly distraught daughter and an angry wife who finds no solace in his sense of values, economic over ethical in all directions.

            In Arbitrage the most ethical of the characters is Brooke, as she feels compelled to learn what’s really going on in the counting house, but even she has her weaknesses as she keeps trying to convince herself that her dad just couldn’t be as crooked as he seems to be, even though that becomes increasingly more difficult with the flimsy bookkeeping excuses, the odd behavior as Miller keeps trying to evade questioning from determined NYC Det. Michael Bryer (Tim Roth, in a more fierce version of Peter Falk’s determined L.A. sleuth, Columbo), and the faux attempts to appear surprised and remorseful at Julie’s funeral (to the outer world he was simply bankrolling her art gallery).  Brooke has to know in her own heart that the ledger isn’t the only thing not adding up, especially when her precious dad reminds her that she’s still just an employee to him:  “Everybody works for me!”  And when she tries to re-frame his questionable tactics back into a family mode so that she can feel more protective of him he rebuffs that as well by acting as the isolated “patriarch” who must protect his family from his public and private sins without ever including them in any explanations, seemingly for their safety but with that intended preservation of stability in their 1% lifestyle constantly threatened by actions that could easily leave them broke and disgraced, even if just by association with all of his failures.  When he manages to pull off his needed miracles by the end of the movie to preserve his wealth and reputation she’s still there at his public testimonial, smiling and seemingly still enthralled with his success and mentorship, but given the fake smiles he’s displaying as he basks in undeserved glory it’s hard to know how genuine her admiration remains.

            Even if Brooke still believes in her father’s façade, Robert’s wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon) certainly doesn’t because she’s seen or sensed enough evidence to know the charade he’s been playing, even as his lawyer-enhanced detective work robs the cops of the main evidence they have against him (via the pressure put on his car-crash-night helper, Jimmy Grant [Nate Parker]) and his own bravado finally pushes reluctant buyer James Mayfield (Graydon Carter) to sign off on the company purchase before any further audits reveal the stinking nature of the deal.  He may be off the hook with the law enforcement and business communities but he’s not yet able to withstand Ellen’s demands for a well-financed separation as punishment for the risk he caused to their family.  Despite his seeming refusal to accept her confrontational terms, even with the treat to blow his alibi on the night of Julie’s death, the ending gala with Ellen beaming support for Robert along with Brooke implies that she’s as big a shark as he is, even to the point of insisting on a fat share of his dirty money to keep her living in luxury after Robert is forced to move on to other ventures (and likely refinance himself with his offshore accounts, as noted by Ellen).  No one else is very clean here either, as Mayfield learns that his purchase is tainted but says nothing because of the prestige he gains by buying Miller’s company (helping prop him up at a delicate time), Det. Bryer is caught at his dirty game involving fabricated evidence against Jimmy in order to pressure Miller to confess, and Jimmy finally succumbs to the $2 million payoff offered by Miller to just go away and forget this all ever happened.  Many decades ago Joni Mitchell wrote and sang “The Arrangement” (on her 1970 album Ladies of the Canyon) in which she says of an unspecified man, “You could have been more, Than a name on the door, On the thirty-third floor in the air, More than a credit card, Swimming pool in the backyard.”  Robert Miller could certainly have been more than what his billionaire’s wealth was really worth in the vault of human decency, but given the resources he’s able to muster he pulls out a victory in this satisfyingly-structured (if not admirably-conceived) movie that just vindicates the old wisdom of the rich get richer ("The fundamental things apply, As time goes by") because no one else can stop them as they simply move their resources around from holder to holder, confirming themselves in control of our society (which continues to laud Miller in his “exoneration”) and driving the rest of us to imitate them as our only means of growth in this rigged game of contemporary life.  (I'd understand if you'd think that my comments are merely a diatribe from an unrepentant leftie; however, here's a similar attitude from Mike Lofgren in The American Conservative from August 27, 2012, as noted at where he says:  “Our plutocracy now lives like the British in colonial India: in the place but not of it. … A century ago, at least we got some attractive public libraries out of Andrew Carnegie. Noblesse oblige like Carnegie’s is presently lacking among our seceding plutocracy. … the super-rich have achieved escape velocity from the gravitational pull of the very society they rule over. They have seceded from America.”  Mitt and Paul, care to comment?  Or aren't you regular readers here anymore?)

            When my “real work” load got much heavier this fall (as "real" as you can imagine) I decided to limit myself to only 1 review a week instead of the multiple ones that I’d been doing before, but each week the universe confounds me with the situation of seeing another film that relates enough to my actual review that I could/should still be doing a duo commentary.  That situation continues with another tale of an ethically-challenged protagonist in Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal‘s The Words, which has generated some harsh words from my critical (not the more neutral “criticism,” in this case) colleagues who have generally trashed it as being ambitious in intention but flat in execution (Rotten Tomatoes average 18%, Metacritic 37%, Movie Intelligence 42%).  I wouldn’t be that hard on it if I were doing an actual review (although these lengthy comments are about as close to “actual” as you can get), probably rating it at 3 of 5 stars because it’s an interesting premise with an underused narrative twist and some very decent acting throughout, including by Bradley Cooper and especially Jeremy Irons as The Old Man.  Here the ethical dilemma confronts Cooper’s struggling novelist, Rory Jansen, whose work is rejected by publishers either as mundane or, in one case, fascinatingly insightful but too esoteric for the public to accept without the author already being an established “name” (which is a horrible indictment of the public’s perception of art in our culture, not unlike how baseball umpires often are more generous in their strike zones with accomplished pitchers or hitters but “squeeze” rookies because they haven’t yet “earned” the benefit of a borderline judgment call).  Faced with seemingly losing all chance for his dreamed-of career, Rory stumbles onto a manuscript in a junk store briefcase, quickly realizing that the story contained therein and its literary style is that great marketable combination of smooth prose and emotional impact, a perfect introduction to the public for a yet-undiscovered literary talent.  Rory sells his soul to the devil of once-in-a-lifetime-opportunities, becoming a smash hit before he’s hit with the shock of being exposed by the unnamed old guy who really wrote the book decades before, lamenting his lost love in post-WW II Paris.  In an interesting structure, The Old Man refers to himself in the third person when describing the tragic events of his life which he transformed into the book stolen by Rory, but this also parallels another author reading his work to an audience, both within this film and externally to us as observers of these writers-turned-public-narrators.

            Where the presentational twist comes here is in the framing story where Dennis Quaid plays Clayton Hammond, author of The Words, the novel that comes alive on screen for us about Rory and The Old Man, along with Old’s life as a younger man (played with proper pathos by Ben Barnes) dealing with the lost passion of his wife, Celia (Nora Arnezeder), after the death of their baby; Clay reads passages from his book for most of his screen time (ironically displaying mundane prose, not nearly of the caliber of his book-within-a-book, The Window Tears, that is so lauded within the framing novel, The Words) but then becomes the focus at the end as he’s pursued by an ambitious Columbia U. grad student who hasn’t even read his book before she starts seducing him but then rejects his ending where Rory just accepts his unearned success after The Old Man dies.  “Life or fiction, which do you choose?” is the key question of the finale, with Clay choosing life (by accepting the offered passion from Daniella [Olivia Wilde] rather than the maintained memory of the wife who has left him) whereas his character Rory accepts the fiction of his unjustified author status (which will now open the door for his own books, which he knows aren’t as good as the stolen one, whatever other qualities they may have).  All in all, The Words doesn’t fully live up to its own possibilities but the passion that Irons pours into his defeated-by-life character makes up for a lot of other shortcomings (more information is available at if you’re interested).

            And, to cap this all off, these other stories of scoundrels who take what they don’t deserve yet end up fat and happy reminds me of another version of these morality tales but one that outshines both of this week’s subjects, Woody Allen’s magnificent 1989 Crimes and Misdemeanors, one of those rare films to which I’d assign 5 stars (!)—among many other critics, Roger Ebert was impressed as well if you’d like to read his review at  In this one we have the crime of murder for no other reason than the inconvenience of a mistress (Anjelica Huston) harassing her well-heeled ophthalmologist lover (Martin Landau) for commitment to her rather than his wife, resulting in her demise in the serious aspects of a film that also blends in comic elements about Allen as a struggling documentary filmmaker with so much of a burdened sense of the need for social justice that he’s barely capable of actually accomplishing anything, including keeping the attention of his would-be love (Mia Farrow) who ends up with Allen’s nemesis, an egotistical but very successful TV producer (Alan Alda), proving—along with other personal tragedies in the story—that good deeds and justice seem sadly irrelevant in a world where you can not only get away with murder but also convince yourself that there’s nothing to feel guilt or shame about as long as you can find comfort in the material rewards that come with your crime (in this case the absence of a messy, expensive divorce and the social turmoil of being public with a lower-class-than-you paramour).  Everything that Arbitrage and The Words set out to do with their probes into situational morality and the disturbingly heady sense of triumph that enlivens the socially privileged who walk away clean from their transgressions is done in a more haunting, melancholy manner in Crimes and Misdemeanors, with the added pleasure of some Woody Allen comedy from his most consistently successful years.  Any of these cinematic morality tales are useful in forcing us to ask what we’d do in similar circumstances and how well we could live with what we’ve done, but of the 3 I’d easily go with Allen on DVD over either of the current theatrical contenders, especially with the ending words from the philosopher character Professor Levy: “We are all faced throughout our lives with agonizing decisions. Moral choices. … We define ourselves by the choices we have made. We are in fact the sum total of our choices.”  Yet even this inspirational wisdom is put into perspective of the reality that Levy commits suicide, possibly a more profound choice than any made by the other characters I’ve referenced above.  But as self-assured killer Judah Rosenthal (Landau) notes, “If you want a happy ending, you should go see a Hollywood movie”; instead, I’d advise Crimes and Misdemeanors, the most thoughtful experience of this bunch of warnings about ethical collapse in our culture.

            But getting back to the main subject of this review, if you’d like to scrutinize Arbitrage’s portfolio more carefully here are some suggested links: (this 11:30 video is from an Economics professor explaining how the concept of “arbitrage” works in the marketplace)

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