If you look up the word arbitrage in Merriam-Webster's, you'll find this definition: "The nearly simultaneous purchase and sale of securities or foreign exchange in different markets in order to profit from price discrepancies."
As you might expect, this sort of financial sleight of hand is risky business. Win at it, and you can make a fortune. Lose, and you might even find yourself behind bars.
Robert Miller understands the fine line between these two outcomes very, very well. And up to this point, the 60-year-old billionaire hedge fund wizard has landed on the right side of the law and ledger. He's a silver fox with a platinum portfolio, the envy of Wall Street and the toast of Forbes magazine.
So Robert decides it's time to get out while he's ahead, to sell his lucrative business to a suitor willing to spend half a billion dollars on it. His family doesn't really understand his decision, especially his daughter, Brooke, who's the chief investment officer for his company. After all, they're still raking in millions a month while other companies struggle against stiff economic headwinds.
What Brooke doesn't know is that Robert isn't selling the company because he wants to. No, his hand has been forced by a risky bet on a Russian copper mine that left a massive $400 million sinkhole in the middle of his balance sheet—a hole that's been temporarily and secretly filled by a loan from a wealthy (but increasingly impatient) peer and by a totally separate set of books sent to auditors.
If Robert can just get the deal closed, no one ever has to know. If he can't, well, we've already covered that whole prison thing.
But that's not Robert's only secret. Nor the only secret on the verge of unraveling, for that matter.
Despite his seemingly happy home life—Robert's wife, Ellen, his children and grandchildren have just thrown him a big 60th birthday party—the businessman has been indulging an ongoing affair with a young artist named Julia. She's impatient for him to leave Ellen and deeply frustrated that she always ends up with the leftover time after Robert tends to his other responsibilities.
Amid mounting pressure to make his financial deal work, Robert shows up at Julia's in the middle of a particularly fateful night, longing for her carnal comforts. When she resists, Robert does what he always does: He ups the ante.
"Come away with me," he says, suggesting they sneak off to his resort home in upstate New York. Julie agrees.
And then it happens, an event far beyond Robert's considerable ability to control with all his money, power and influence: He loses control of the car, flipping it … and killing Julia.
So he ups the ante again.
Robert calls a young man whose father he once helped, a man named Jimmy, to come quietly pick him up at the scene of the wreck. No one must know, he warns sternly … even as the great unraveling begins.
Arbitrage unfolds a cautionary tale about the perils of wealth, privilege and power. Robert's vast financial resources have led him to live as if he's the only one who gets to make—and break—the rules. And the movie uses that premise to present to us a series of valuable lessons.
Object Lesson No. 1: As things begin to slip out of control, both at work and at home, desperation sets in, and Robert tries to undo the damage he's done. He largely succeeds in doing so, but it's clear that his "success" has come at the cost of his soul and his closest relationships.
Object Lesson No. 2: At his 60th birthday party, Robert tells his family he's finally learned what matters most in life: his relationships with them. Despite the seeming sincerity with which he delivers that speech, however, both his wife and daughter suspect Robert's uncharacteristic sentimentality is cloaking a lie. And they're right.
Object Lesson No. 3: When Robert tells his trusted lawyer, Syd, about the accident that killed Julie, the older man suggests that Robert turn himself in and confess. Syd observes that the more time goes by, the more lies Robert will have to tell, and he says the likelihood of getting caught increases. Turns out he's dead right on every score.
Object Lesson No. 4: When Brooke discovers her father's fraud, she's horrified by his illegal actions and tries to remind him that what he's done is against the law. But Brooke has something to learn here, too. Later she has a conversation with her mother about what's been happening, and Ellen tells her daughter that she has to live her own life; that she's not obligated to cover up for her father's poor choices.
Julie's mother wears a cross to her daughter's funeral. Robert euphemistically says he prays Brooke never has to learn some of the hard lessons he's had to. Elsewhere, he rationalizes that he did the illegal Russian copper mine deal because it was "a license to print money forever—it's God."
It's hinted that Robert and Julie have frequent trysts. We see them kiss passionately once. And we see her remove her shirt (revealing her bra) and straddle him.
As Robert leaves his birthday party to go see Julie, Ellen suggestively teases that she hasn't even had a chance to give him his birthday present yet. And for much of the film, she seems to be utterly unaware of his infidelity. In the end, however, it comes out that she's known about his relationship with Julie all along. Further, Ellen tells Robert she's known about all his illicit lovers through the years. She says she's been willing to put up with it because he's been so good at monetarily taking care of their family.
Several women wear outfits that reveal cleavage. Julie wears a formfitting top. Ellen exercises in an off-the-shoulder workout sweatshirt sans bra.
We see the car accident that claims Julie's life, the vehicle flipping several time and finally exploding. Robert suffers a gash to his head and a massive bruise on his chest. A huge wound is seen on the neck of Julie's lifeless body. Photographs of the scene later show her charred remains.
Robert loses his temper with an accountant and pins him up against a wall in a heated argument.
Crude or Profane Language
Sixty-plus f-words. Five or six s-words. We hear a handful of uses each of "a‑‑," "b‑‑ch," "d‑‑n" and "h‑‑‑." There are two uses of "n-gger." God's name is paired with "d‑‑n" four or five times; Jesus' is abused three or four.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Throughout the film, characters consume various alcoholic beverages, mostly in social settings. The exception: Robert is shown drinking from a bottle of alcohol late one night as he tries to cope with the mounting pressure.
Julie smokes cigarettes, as do some other people at her art exhibit. In a stressful moment, we see her dice up cocaine on a mirror and snort it.
Robert takes prescription medication for pain caused by the accident.
Other Negative Elements
Even beyond what's already been covered in this review, Arbitrage is full of moral and ethical conundrums, in which virtually every character fails to do the right thing at some point.
While it's true that Brooke isn't responsible for her father's actions, she is legally obligated to report them. She wrestles mightily with what to do … but we never see anything that indicates she actually decides to turn her father in.
For her part, Ellen has known about Robert's ethical and moral lapses for years. And she eventually tries to blackmail him into signing the rest of his assets over to the family's massive charitable trust in exchange for lying to the police to cover up what happened the night Julie died.
Robert, meanwhile, bribes Jimmy to lie for him, offering the young man a $2 million trust if he'll stick to the fabricated story. But it's also understood by nearly everyone—Robert, the detective assigned to the case and even Jimmy himself—that Robert called Jimmy the night of the accident because the young (black) man is essentially disposable.
The detective desperately wants to pin responsibility for Julie's death on Robert—so much so that he doctors some of the evidence to do so.
There are three primary perspectives from which to view Arbitrage: its content, its politics and its spirituality/morality. Content concerns are heavy, with, among other things, dozens of f-words flogging the dialogue, onscreen cocaine use and sexual affairs. And its politics? Well, let's just say we certainly feel its forceful jab in the eye of the so-called one-percenters, a political football if ever there was one in 2012. But it's in the spiritual category that the film seems to soar as it doggedly mirrors the Bible's clear admonition to be wary of the corrupting power of money.
It's at a critical moment in Arbitrage that Robert Miller says he'll give Jimmy a massive sum of money to keep lying for him. Never mind that if Jimmy gets caught in his deception—and he very nearly does—he'll end up in prison too. "You serious?" Jimmy responds incredulously. "You think money's gonna fix this?"
Robert's four-word response lays bare the core of his approach to life: "What else is there?"
Arbitrage sets out to show him—and us—that it's actually the opposite of that worldview that makes us human. Keeps us sane. When Robert's thrust into a nightmare his money can't wake him up from, we're dragged into something of an old-fashioned morality tale.
And the movie goes further, I think, than simply ripping the veil away from one man's tragic, life-consuming greed. By the time the credits roll, virtually everyone around him has made compromises to protect themselves, too, from Robert's wife and daughter to his lawyers and accountants to the detectives chasing him to the disadvantaged young man Robert bullies and bribes into helping him.
Even though everyone realizes just how selfish and reckless Robert's actions have been, then, to a person they all make similarly self-serving choices. And in that, the film seals the deal it's been angling toward.