Neuro movie review: Arbitrage

Whew Neurological Correlates readers, so much to write about since our last post! So much psychopathy in the news!

So… we’re taking the easy way out and just writing about a movie we saw on our On Demand TV: Arbitrage.

Interestingly, the film was released on pay-TV the same weekend it was released in theaters. So we paid the $7.99 to watch TV.

Paying extra to watch something on TV is always a little weird for us (as opposed to just paying our monthly bill).  We’ve always associated pay-per-view with wrestling. Not that we don’t enjoy a good pro-wrestling match now and then, but we don’t want to pay for it. So we’d just as soon have more pro-wrestler politicians to increase the entertainment value of C-SPAN, which we do watch a lot. Plus, spangled pants may improve public participation in the governmental processes – see photo of attire worn in Occupy SF taken earlier today as we looked out the window at the procession down Market Street headed toward the Federal Reserve of SF:

Occupy SF on Mid Market Street

Be that as it may.

Another interesting thing about “Arbitrage” is that the protagonist was played by Richard Gere, and this is the second film we’ve reviewed starring Mr. Gere, the previous one being the Hoax. The Hoax was about another scam artist: Clifford Irving. Mr. Irving was a Cornell-educated literature Ph.D. who wrote a fake biography of Howard Hughes.

Both the “Arbitrage” protagonist and Mr. Irving (as portrayed) were big time fakes — yet, did have a fair amount of native talent.  We see some self-awareness — they realize there’s something wrong with them, that they’re psychopathic (maybe not in so many words). Not that it bothers them.  The self-aware psychopaths have some curiosity about themselves — which could lead to justifying their behavior or changing course or merely questioning themselves for amusement. They view it in the context of something bigger – what, we’re not quite sure.  But it seems to us that self-aware psychopaths make for interesting cinematic characters, and can carry a 90 minute movie.

Psychopaths lacking insight, and who are not intelligent or lack any brakes on self-control are tough to watch for that amount of time.  Of the non-slasher film variety, we can only think of females at the moment – Margot of Margot at the Wedding, or the Michelle Pfeiffer character in White Oleander, and neither only one was a main character. (Other than that, non-self-aware psychopaths are usually portrayed as some kind of violent serial killer — less psychological, more tactical and suspense from who’s getting whacked next.) Actually, Kevin, the psychopath child in “We need to talk about Kevin,” seems to fit the bill.

“Arbitrage” is premised on the life of a well-respected fund manager zillionaire. We meet him and his lovely wife (Susan Sarandon) on his 60th birthday, with his lovely family in their lovely home, as he professes his love to all of them.  As is presented fairly early in the film, he has a mistress and his financial  firm is based on fraud. He accidentally kills the mistress in a car crash, and he’s selling his firm by hiding the fraud. So he’s got this double-life thing. We understand that if everything crashes down and he goes to jail, it’s an Appleby’s downgrade for all (an inside joke in the film).

Now, as is also presented fairly early in the film, his daughter (who is his CFO) learns about the fraud — will she rat him out? And, there is another character who could rat him out for his role with his now-dead mistress. Either way, the firm would fail, the investors would lose all the money, and he’d be in jail. The film shows his back and forth between wanting to turn himself in and cut a deal, versus getting away with it totally (no spoilers here).  There are really no sympathetic protagonists in the film, in our view, and everyone has a price.

While the comparison between “Arbitrage” and the Madoff affair is inevitable we suppose, the director claims that the difference is that Madoff is a one-dimensional character, whereas the Gere character is more complex.

We see this as stylistic — say, like, the difference between the “Housewives of New Jersey” and the “Housewives of New York.” (Oh come on, play along, like it’s real).  The New York ones are way more smooth. Where the New Jersey ones turn over tables to express displeasure, a New York one is sleeping with the French boyfriend of the bar owner in St. Barths using the “old Italian friends” alibi, while the other haus-fraus recognize French pillow-talk when they hear it through the walls.

We see the comparison as being that  Madoff (in his interviews) is a bit too directly self-serving —  in announcing himself a victim (in having so much pressure to keep up the fraud, and in the victims refusing his offer to return them their money, etc, etc., ) for instance. In the film, the Gere character, while having more or less the same narcissism/psychopathy, is simply . . . smoother.   He plays it closer to the vest. Actions are strategic, and emotions expressed are means to an end. It’s a matter of fine degree, a few tenths of a point.

The thing about Mr. Gere (as we noted before) is that he can act in movies where there’s not really a lot of action, but rather it’s the psycho-drama that’s the thing. As we said before:

What Mr. Gere does with every fraction of an eyebrow lift, with slight narrowing of his eyes, with every angle of his head, with every cigarette drag, is amazing — if you know how a psychopath thinks. You can literally see him doing the trigonometry in his brain of whether to roll the dice . . .

And so he does again in “Arbitrage.” How do you keep an audience engaged when they’re watching you think about something? Mr. Gere seems to be able to do this and so we vote that he is a good actor. (As opposed to, say, a certain former California governor who is not believable to us when he’s acting like he’s thinking about something).

The casting was pitch perfect. Ms. Sarandon was terrific (although of course we liked her best as Janet or Thelma, and this role was way too tame).  Nate Parker’s role was a tough one because it could have been too over-the-top-poor-black-guy-speaking-truth-to-power, but it wasn’t, he was on the take just like everyone. We also liked Graydon Carter’s portrayal of a bank CEO, who reminded us of this guy. The actors who played the criminal justice machinery were a little too cop-show stereotypical, and it would have been interesting to see some agency-capture, but there was an interesting plot twist.*

We won’t spoil the ending except to say that there was a public speech given that was just enough to make you ill — a very realistic emotion when around high functioning psychopaths.

And so, we say that “Arbitrage” was well worth the $7.99 pay-per-view.

*As an aside, this is a great book on photo fakery.