Arbitrage can occur when the value of a good in one place is different from the value of the same good in a different place. Rather than bringing the seller together with a buyer who’s willing to pay a lot, an arbitrageur pays the seller’s low price, then brings the good to the buyer and sells it for a higher one. Arbitrage depends on the seller’s not learning the true market value of the good they have for sale, or if this isn’t the case, on the impossibility of the seller’s making direct contact with the true purchaser of their goods.
Arbitrage is also the practice of bringing buyers and sellers together. It’s the practice depicted in the 1988 movie Working Girl. The intern played by Melanie Griffith puts together a deal that allows one corporation to buy another. The firm she works for acts as a go-between, letting the buyer and seller know that a deal could be made, and provides loans that let the deal go through. She tells them about a possibility they don’t yet know exists (though it’s possible they could if they wanted to, and did the research she performed), and earns a commission on the sale.
“Arbitrage” is also the name of a 2012 movie starring Richard Gere and Brit Marling, as well as Susan Sarandon, Tim Roth, and Nate Parker. Gere plays an incredibly wealthy financier who’s about to sell his firm, at which Marling’s character, his daughter, is an important executive. There’s also some shady business involving his borrowing cash under the table to make it look as if his investment company is properly funded. When—as depicted in the trailer—his mistress is killed in a gruesome late-night accident during which he was driving her car, he perceives the need to create a story that hopefully will keep him out of the clutches of the police. But because there’s no question the death was an accident and the most serious charge he’d face would be manslaughter, he’s more worried about the deal falling through than he is about prison time or the scandal itself. And the buyer, played for some reason by Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, is jerking him around.
There’s some attempt to make this into a movie about a basically good guy whose life starts to fall apart around him when he makes a couple of mistakes. (It occurred to me, weirdly, that if he’d done a line of his girlfriend’s coke instead of drinking her scotch, he might not have fallen asleep at the wheel.) But this idea can’t really be sustained. The filmmakers are very careful to let the viewer know that this kind of behavior—the cheating, in both senses—is utterly commonplace among this crowd, and it surprises almost no one. When he involves the son of his former driver, played by Nate Parker, in the crime, the cruelty of what he’s asking the younger man to do is shocking to the viewer, and seems to occur to him not at all.
Arbitrage, the movie, is dark and cold. Thirty years ago, Working Girl depicted a girl from Queens working her way through college to get a job at Wall Street and achieve success, in spite of the fact that her colleagues would surely screw her over. (Well, her female boss screws her over, and she learns that a sexy man can both fall in love with her and engineer her ultimate success.) Arbitrage has no such happy ending. It’s not a fun, commercial movie like Working Girl is. It’s not really even an exceptional indie film. It has a couple of plot holes. It’s a first effort by a new filmmaker, but it’s also interesting, and it had really good performances by Marling, Roth, Sarandon, and a definitely aging but still sexy Gere.