As a general rule, when you cast Richard Gere and let him go to town in a movie, you’re going to get something pretty compelling. Gere has been on a solid run of late too, with Time Out of Mind representing perhaps the best performance of his career. With his newest film The Benefactor (previously called Franny on the festival circuit last year) however, the performance isn’t on par with the rest of the work. Writer/director Andrew Renzi has his ideas thrown all over the place in this story of a wealthy oddball trying to throw his influence onto the lives of others, never coalescing into anything firmly satisfying. When the focus is on Gere and Gere alone, there’s compelling acting on display. However, the story, pedestrian directing, and wasting of certain other cast members (cough, Dakota Fanning, cough) leads to this being a movie that just doesn’t really work.
We meet wealthy philanthropist Franny (Gere) as he’s planning a new venture with his close friends, a married couple (Dylan Baker and Cheryl Hines) with a daughter named Olivia (Fanning) that he adores. Then, tragedy strikes the couple and we fast forward to years later. Franny has become a bit of a shut in, while Olivia is now married to Luke (Theo James) and pregnant. This news spurs Franny to emerge from seclusion and to try and be the angel on their shoulders. He feels responsible in a way for her parents’ accidental death, so he begins throwing money around, buying her childhood home for them and getting Luke a plum job. It all seems innocent at first, but as the newlyweds discover, Franny doesn’t like being said no to. If that was all The Benefactor was about, it would be a little thriller with a strong performance at its core, but the second half throws in addiction, drug use, homoerotic subtext, and just a lack of any sort of a handle on the main plot. It’s a shame too, as early on this seemed like it could have been something.
The one thing you can’t hold against this film is the performance by Richard Gere. He soars here, not quite to the point of last year’s Time Out of Mind, but it’s still one of his better performances to date. He’s intense, quirky, and unpredictable, in the best ways. Gere has always had a troublemaker’s look in his eyes, something that he plays up to strong effect here, recalling the wilder days of his youth. If only everyone else was on par with him, the movie might have been saved. Alas, Dakota Fanning is utterly wasted and Theo James is bland as they come. Fanning deserves better, to say the least, as she’s an underrated actress. James, I can’t say much about, as it’s a very milquetoast type of performance. Dylan Baker and Cheryl Hines essentially just cameo, though they’re enjoyable while on the screen, with other supporting parts in The Benefactor going to Clark Peters, Tibor Feldman, and more. Still, this is really all about Gere here, plain and simple.
Filmmaker Andrew Renzi clearly has a number of things he wants to address in his feature debut, but he’s just not there yet, either as a writer or as a director. He fares better in terms of his direction than with his writing, though The Benefactor could have used a polish on both counts. Renzi deserves credit for getting such a good performance out of Gere, but it’s not nearly enough. I’d be curious to see what he does next, but much like the movie itself, he’s a work in progress to me. Had Renzi decided on a more consistent angle and tone for The Benefactor, maybe the outcome would have been a little different…
Overall, The Benefactor is a small scale misfire that contains a performance almost worth seeking the film out for. Gere comes close to making the flick work, just falling short in the end. If you’re a big fan of his, you might find enough here to make it worth a watch, but other than that…this just isn’t essential viewing. You can certainly do worse in January, but even with lowered standards, you can do better as well. The Benefactor just can’t pull it all together, despite the best efforts of Gere in the title role. Alas.
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!