Arbitrage: The Morality of Money

Early on in the movie, when reporters are crowded in Richard Miller’s living room asking him about the turning point in his life, he says it came in fifth grade when his English teacher emphasized the importance of five things – m, o, n, e, y. It’s quite a predictable set up, this need for examining the obsession that rules so many business professionals. How money becomes the only guiding force that it blurs the line between means and ends, and that makes for riveting drama in some cases. More notably, Micheal Douglas’s Wall Street, and a couple of years back, the same movie’s sequel.

The movie introduces us to Richard Miller (a billionaire, in his 60s, Richard Gere’s particularly self-assured and passively calm here) who’s worried about the merger of his company. Despite the inherent mediocre nature of both the industries (Bollywood, Hollywood), the one aspect where Hollywood scores majorly is what it allows its main characters to be. It gives them the freedom to play their age. Initially in the movie, we are reminded a couple of times that Richard is getting old, and it’s referred to pretty cursorily. And it’s really refreshing to see an actor accept the tag of being old, who was often known noticed in his heydays in most of the movies for his looks. Compare it to Bollywood movies, where heroes don’t have any definition of old age, or even normalcy for that matter.

Arbitrage

We soon expect the movie to dig its claws deep into the nuances of financial world, and how in general depraved it is. But to our surprise, it doesn’t come, not too soon, and not that into the face. Instead the movie delves into Richard’s personal life. He’s having an affair with an artist whose work has been supported by his company. And on one night when he’s driving with his girlfriend, he dozes off for a couple of seconds and rams his car on a highway. He’s badly injured, but worse, his girl friend is dead. It’s quite an unexpected diversion, this change in movie’s tone. Because nothing of that sort was hinted in the movie’s trailer. And then the movie slowly warms up to its main point – Richard calls Jimmy to help him out of the situation. He knows Jimmy will help him because his father worked in his company for 20 years, and Jimmy knows this too. Relationships that are borne out of compulsion rather than compassion are sometimes an entire story in themselves.

It’s quite an interesting juxtaposition – this coming together of two worlds. They both hail from two extreme ends of the spectrum. Richard knows it. His friend asks him later in the movie, ‘Are you exploiting him?’ Richard exits the conversation abruptly, saying he doesn’t know. The scene briefly reminded me of Adiga’s incisive novel, The White Tiger, that how when it comes to the relationship dynamics between rich and poor, who’s right and who’s wrong seldom comes into the equation. The rich by virtue of being rich is powerful, and by virtue of being powerful, is right. Jimmy stands a chance of prison time of 10 years.

On the other hand, Richard’s merger of the company is not turning out to be all that rosy. There’s just too many tracks to be covered, and then there’s his daughter, the central information officer in the same company who’s oblivious to this. Nicholas Jarecki (movie’s director) keeps raising some important questions, how objectively can you view right and wrong with respect to your own family? He very effectively builds and sustains two parallel tension in the movie – Richard’s imbroglio in the involuntary man slaughter case, and his company’s plummeting financial fortunes.

Tim Roth, playing a slovenly detective, is very effective here. His roving eye, probing questions, and his own predisposition to be dishonest keeps the drama alive and kicking. It’s a nice mix. Everyone’s caught up in their own web they have made for themselves, and they just want to get out of it with least possible fuss. But then, the movie’s not willing to probe any further. The characters aren’t that well-rounded so their definition of happiness or unhappiness is still at its best, nebulous. The movie’s culmination too is pretty predictable, just like most movies content in playing safe.

But the movie drives home a simple point quite effectively in its final act – how money is still the most motivating factor for most of us. ‘I am doing all this for money. What does that make me?’ Jimmy wonders aloud. Like Richard, of all people, would have answer to that question.

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