Film Review: The Benefactor

Richard Gere camps it up as a guilt- and drug-riddled, reality-resistant millionaire trying to buy himself a family in this intriguing but dramatically uneven drama.
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Nobody would deny the right of Franny (Richard Gere) to have himself a good long wallow. At the beginning of Andrew Renzi’s The Benefactor, a good-hearted if not quite finished-seeming story, Franny is the apotheosis of the devil-may-care rich guy. He’s using his millions to build a new children’s hospital in Philadelphia and celebrating that do-gooder high (as well as an actual high) with his married best friends from college, Bobby (Dylan Baker) and Mia (Cheryl Hines). One calamitous accident later, he’s lost them both. Franny’s only connection to Bobby and Mia, their teenage daughter Olivia (Dakota Fanning), cuts him off. Again, a deep dive into depression would be expected.

But by the time the story catches up with Franny, five years have passed. He’s transitioned from over-exuberant millionaire with too much time on his hands to bearded Howard Hughes-ian shut-in living on liquid morphine cocktails and self-pity. Then, Olivia calls. She’s pregnant and has a steady guy, an earnest young doctor, Luke (Theo James). Olivia wants to reconnect with her eccentric old pseudo-uncle, as he’s the closest thing to family she has left.

Franny’s transformation is electric. He throws the windows open, cuts his shaggy locks, dresses in eccentric millionaire casual (scarves and canes are key), and holds a soiree to announce that he’s bringing on Luke as the newest doctor at the hospital. Not one for small measures, Franny also buys the couple her parents’ beautiful old country home and pays off Luke’s student loans. He throws windfall after windfall at the overwhelmed pair, desperately trying to recreate the glowing synergy he had with Olivia’s parents. But not only can money not buy happiness, it also can’t buy friends and family, no matter how much cash Franny flings around.

Initially, The Benefactor presents as the slightly sad-sack story of a man who’s had very few genuine relationships in his life trying to buy some before it’s too late for him. Renzi’s inspiration for this personal prison of entitlement was apparently John du Pont, also the basis for Foxcatcher. Although the performances don’t quite deliver, on paper Renzi’s script is a psychologically astute portrait of showy insecurity and neediness—Franny always has to be the life of the party, even when there is nothing remotely like a party going on—twinned with a stinging, bullying cruelty that flashes out whenever he’s not getting exactly what he wants.

That leaves Olivia and Luke uncomfortably stuck. Although their cramped apartment shows that they obviously wouldn’t mind having a little cash and good fortune, the price gets steeper and steeper. Luke is especially caught in the middle, with Franny grooming him via gifts and undue amounts of praise to be his next best buddy, the reincarnation of Bobby. Luke’s initial discomfort at his new role is well suited for a performer like James, whose resting state is usually an annoyed glower.

Gere amps up everything to match the intensity required for Franny’s deeply rooted self-loathing and petulant craving for affirmation. “I always wanted everybody to love me,” he admits in a rare moment of self-awareness. This works in small doses, like the ones where Franny visits the sick children at the hospital, imagining that his immaturity makes him a natural Patch Adams figure. It’s ultimately a shallow performance, though, and makes you wish that a more truly rascally actor like Bill Murray could have brought it to life.

That lack of depth becomes more acute once the story pushes into the darker territory of Franny’s addictions. All the right phrases and scenes are trotted out (“I’m not a drug addict,” Franny pleads at one moment before threatening the job of a doctor who won’t refill his prescription), but they feel stock and merely bolted onto an entirely different story. Worse, the addiction plotline further distances an already mostly absent Olivia from the film. Although the opening scenes would have had you think that her relationship with Franny was the heart of this story, Renzi neglects her for long stretches of time.

The Benefactor has the right materials here. It’s a neatly developed dramatic triangle embedded with guilt, money, power and longing. But it’s an off-kilter film that leaves too many promising elements behind to make room for more capering and raging from Gere. Less would have been much more.

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