After hibernating in a cave of luxury and addiction, billionaire philanthropist Franny (Richard Gere) emerges to a very different reality. It’s been five years since he survived the car accident that claimed the lives of his two best friends, a married couple. Now, their orphaned daughter Olivia (Dakota Fanning) has walked back into Franny’s life with a new husband, Luke (Theo James) and a plea: the newlyweds are expecting a baby, and Luke needs a job. Franny, ever the avuncular type, jumps at the opportunity to help.
The prospect of having a purpose invigorates Franny, and immediately he bestows his former house upon the couple. But the gifts don’t end there. Soon Luke is appointed head of Franny’s charity and lands a position at the foundation’s hospital. Franny ushers Luke into these roles with much fanfare, giving long, emotional speeches and private pep talks that feel borderline inappropriate. When Luke expresses trepidation at a foundation gala, Franny says, “You don’t have to prove yourself to anyone. Just say thank you and get drunk with me. You need this. And I need this. Actually, I really do.” As he further insinuates himself into the couples’ lives—he pays off Luke’s medical school loans, among other favors—it becomes clear that Franny’s compulsive altruism is a symptom of something much deeper and darker than anyone could have imagined.
Writer-director Andrew Renzi’s “The Benefactor” is a compelling portrait of a man on the verge. The character’s descent is gradual but inevitable. His wealth and grief are inextricable, hanging over him like a dark cloud he must spend in order to eliminate. But every barrel has its bottom. Though Renzi has trouble getting there—the dramatic pacing meanders until Franny crumbles halfway through—watching Gere take the plunge is worth the wait.
Gere is larger than life as the eccentric but troubled Franny, giving the role the attention and depth only a veteran of his caliber could manage. Watching the actor switch gears as he inhabits the character’s complex layers is what ultimately carries the movie. Though Gere played a similar role in 2012’s “Arbitrage” (about a desperate hedge fund magnate), “The Benefactor” gives him the opportunity to push his range to darker recesses. When Franny comes completely unhinged, Gere’s commitment is infallible. He lends such pathos to his raging addict scenes that they’re nearly unwatchable for the discomfort they elicit. “The Benefactor” is a Gere vehicle if there ever was one.
In the film’s strongest scene, Franny pleads with his doctor for another prescription to his addictive pain medicine. Like an actor exploring motivations, we watch Franny feel out his possibilities: He begins by feigning denial (“I’m 60 years old; I’m not a drug addict”). Increasingly desperate, he employs a guilt trip and then turns manipulative, belittling and cruel. Renzi and Gere work together to lay a weak man bare. The vulnerability underneath is not tender and relatable, but rather harsh and unforgiving. Franny is a pitiful character, and we look down upon him with the same disappointment and unease experienced by the supporting characters in his life.
Fanning, meanwhile, is grievously under-utilized. Her character is an interesting one with a complex inner life, but the script only grants us partial access to it. Instead, Renzi uses Luke’s character to penetrate Franny’s elaborate network of self-deception. James, though great in the role, is the easier route: the bro-bonding is overwritten, and it happens largely at the cost of exploring the much more compelling dynamic between Franny and Olivia. In a particularly moving scene, Franny gifts Olivia’s former house to the newlyweds. Olivia, blindsided, is overcome with memories. The camera stays on her face as they wash over her, and in a matter of seconds we’re taken on a journey through five years of grief. One can imagine what Fanning might have done for the film if afforded more room.
The movie suffers from a sense of rigidity that somehow both fits its themes and stymies a greater sense of realism. On the one hand, moments of cold detachment in cinematographer Joe Anderson’s sweeping crane set-ups and intense long-shots compliment Franny’s detached state of mind and the icy world he inhabits. But though they’re beautiful, these stylistic elements can also prove distancing. We feel closer to Franny when we’re tight on his face, forced to reckon with the mess he’s created for himself. Similarly, some scenes preceding Franny’s final breakdown feel too carefully constructed. Renzi adheres closely to the script when certain conversations would benefit from a sense of unpredictability.
But the film’s flaws never overshadow the gravitas of Gere’s performance, and “The Benefactor” accomplishes just what it set out to do: capture one man’s fall from grace. In the hands of Richard Gere, it’s a beautiful fall indeed.
“The Benefactor” premiered at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival. It is being distributed by Samuel Goldwyn Films.