by Mark Burger

Arbitrage and The Words contemplate conscience

Moral and ethical boundaries and quandaries are at the heart of Arbitrage , a cool, detached thriller from writer/director Nicholas Jarecki that provides Richard Gere with a first-class opportunity to display his dramatic abilities. (Oscar bait? Entirely likely.…) Gere’s Robert Miller is a Wall Street wizard known for his dextrous dealing. On the eve of a particularly important — and precarious — corporate merger that he has painstakingly (and, to some extent, underhandedly) constructed, he accidentally kills his mistress (Laetitia Casta) in an auto accident. In a panic, he flees the scene with the help of Jimmy (Nate Parker), the son of an old friend.

The incident was clearly unintentional, and in characteristic fashion he decides on a course of action, attempting to reconcile himself to that decision, although not always successfully.

Arbitrage, so named for an applicable business term, is everything the 1990 screen adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities might have been had director Brian De Palma jettisoned the satirical approach. This is the kind of intelligent, well-structured yarn that is driven by its characters and the actors who play them, and although Gere is the principal character, there’s ample room for the other actors to shine — enhancing both the leading man’s performance and the overall story.

The cost to Miller in personal terms is staggering, and escalates exponentially as time goes on and his guilt festers. Not only is he the target of dogged Detective Bryer, who’s intent on using Jimmy to get to him, but Miller is also confronted by his daughter and business partner Brooke (Brit Marling in a breakout turn), whose idealism and adoration of her father is severely tested when she learns of his financial malfeasance.

As his world comes crashing down around him — on two fronts, no less — Miller begins to lose control. Like Michael Douglas (and father Kirk, for that matter), Gere is one of those actors marvelously adept at cracking up on screen, and he’s got plenty of opportunity to do it here. Yet although Miller has done bad things — and continues to do them — he remains empathetic to the end, yet there’s the mounting sense (of dread?) that some form of consequence will ultimately befall him.

Susan Sarandon (as Miller’s wife), Stuart Margolin, Bruce Altman, Chris Eigeman, Larry Pine, Reg E Cathey and real-life Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter round out a fine cast, and Cliff Martinez provides yet another sharp score that enhances the tension in suitably nerve-jangling fashion.

Summer’s over and it’s time for movies to grow up. Arbitrage is precisely the sort of satisfying, absorbing adult fare to get the fall rolling.

Moral and ethical boundaries and quandaries are at the heart of The Words , a good-looking if slightly soap-opera-ish potboiler starring Bradley Cooper as Rory, a struggling novelist who publishes a novel described as “a piece of art.” Trouble is, he didn’t write it.

The Window Tears, a Hemingwayesque story of love and loss, was discovered as an unpublished (and, remarkably, undiscovered) manuscript hidden away in a satchel that Rory purchases on his honeymoon in Paris. Rory hadn’t meant to publish it himself — not really — but the enthusiastic reaction of both his wife (Zoe Saldana) and his publisher (Zeljko Ivanek) compelled him to do so. Now he’s reaping the rewards of another’s work, and his conscience is troubled.

As Rory reflects on a work and life that isn’t his, so to does novelist Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid), whose novel The Words tells Rory’s story. These parallel narratives, which pile on top of each other and unfold not unlike a novel (albeit a somewhat cumbersome one), require frequent flashbacks and joint narration by Quaid and Jeremy Irons (more about him later). As a result, the film never quite finds a sustained momentum.

The writer/director duo of Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, both of whom also appear in the film, at least have the benefit of Antonio Calvache’s elegant cinematography and an expressive score by Marcelo Zarvos (heavy on the strings), but the film never reaches the perceptive or ironic heights it aims for.

Cooper (also an executive producer) deserves some credit for tackling a more dramatic role than audiences are accustomed to, even if he doesn’t quite pull it off. Quaid is affable but unremarkable, Saldana is luminous in a thankless role and Olivia Wilde (as a graduate student infatuated with Hammond) is thankless in a thankless role. JK Simmons, Michael McKean, John Hannah and Ron Rifkin also drop in briefly.

And then there’s Irons, looking more grizzled and bedraggled than audiences are accustomed to, as the actual writer of Rory’s novel, who confronts the younger man on a New York park bench and immediately elevates the proceedings.

With the sort of judiciously, deliciously hammy turn that British actors are so adept at — never underestimate the benefits of stage training — Irons perfectly captures the spirit of the story, not by playing it as high drama but as melodrama (which is precisely what it is). The Words is most alive, and most lively, whenever he’s on screen. This is not among the highlights of Irons’ screen career, but unquestionably his performance is the highlight of the film.

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