Director: Andrew Renzi
Cast: Richard Gere, Theo James, Dakota Fanning
Running Time: 1:32
Release Date: 1/15/16 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik | January 15, 2016
Actors, especially movie stars, develop or fall into a certain identifiable persona over years or decades of work. One walks into a movie featuring such a performer expecting certain characteristics or performance tics—a branded smile or smoldering glance, a distinct rhythm or inflection to the way lines are delivered, or an air of confidence, self-deprecation, or humility.
The Richard Gere persona that we've come to know is one of effortless and even sly charm, as if he has a secret he wants to share but wants to lure people into asking about it. The Benefactor offers a devious twist on that persona.
There's a lot of effort to the charm of the actor's Franny, a well-to-do philanthropist who has accumulated his wealth from unknown means but who at least spends that money in way that primarily benefits others. That's part of the effort, too, because he seems to wield his wealth in such a way that passive-aggressively insinuates that you'd better like him if he decides to give you some of his fortune—even and especially if you didn't ask for it. He might be a good man, but it's difficult to tell for certain, since he seems far more concerned about making sure that others believe he is a good man.
There's a big difference, and Gere's performance clearly delineates it. Gere still offers the slyness, but it's exaggerated beyond recognition. It feels desperate. He's not trying to lure people into asking about the secrets he's holding. His character does have a few, some of which remain unanswered by the end of the movie, but he doesn't want them to be revealed. He wants everyone to think he's happy and just fine with the way things are in his life. He overcompensates, though, and it makes him off-putting.
That's intentional, and it's why Gere's performance works as well as it does. Franny is essentially a man trying to emulate the Richard Gere persona—and failing miserably at it. It's a daringly self-aware performance.
The movie, unfortunately, doesn't live up to the performance at its core. The screenplay by first-time director Andrew Renzi offers a plain-as-day story of overwhelming guilt leading to eventual, instant redemption. Five years ago, Franny and his best friends (Dylan Baker and Cheryl Hines) are preparing to open a children's hospital with some of Franny's fortune. The friends' daughter Olivia (Dakota Fanning) is packing to leave for college. "Poodles," as Franny calls her, is like a daughter to him. While the old friends are out for a drive, there's an accident. Franny's friends are killed, and he is severely injured.
In the present day, Franny has become almost completely isolated, living in a room at a luxurious Philadelphia hotel and leaving only occasionally to visit a young patient at the hospital. The accident has left him physically, emotionally, and psychologically broken. He walks with a cane, has a massive scar down his torso, and has become addicted to morphine.
Olivia calls. She recently got married, is pregnant, and wants to return to Philadelphia to start a new life with her husband Luke (Theo James), who, coincidentally, is a doctor. Franny gets involved in the couple's lives almost immediately, setting up a job for Luke at the hospital, paying off his student loans, and buying Olivia her childhood home so that she can start her family in a familiar place. Franny doesn't ask for their permission to do these things, although they offer little resistance—partly because it's a too good of a deal for them to pass up and partly because Franny is pushy that way.
At first, the movie's central question seems to be whether or not Franny's aid is too good to be true, as he takes Luke under his wing. Franny latches on to Luke, saying that the young man reminds him of his old friend and hinting that perhaps his feelings toward his friend's wife might have been more than friendly. He takes Luke to a party and a club, and as they wander the streets drunk and high on some ill-gotten drugs, poor Olivia is alone at home to wordlessly despair around the house.
Something is not right with Franny, and for a while, there seems to be the potential that he will bring harm to the newlyweds in some way, instead of simply harming himself through his habits. The setup is intriguing, and Gere is off-kilter enough here to suggest that his darker side could damage the couple, even if only by accident.
What happens, though, is far more conventional. As the movie sees it, Franny's problems are relatively simple. The only secret that matters is that he feels responsible for the deaths of his friends. He wants to atone for that, and he is simply too eager and too burdened by his addiction to do so in a socially acceptable way. Gere's performance actually might be too good for this material. He creates a man with untold layers and depths of pain. The Benefactor would rather explicate the cause of that pain and find as swift a solution to it as possible.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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