This is a reprint of our review from the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
Even if they hadn’t both screened so close together at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, there would be little chance of avoiding comparisons between the debut feature from Andrew Renzi, “The Benefactor” and Oren Moverman‘s TIFF title “Time Out Of Mind” (our review here). Both films are singlemindedly focused on their central character, who appears in almost every scene, and both are key to the potential career renaissance narrative now circulating around Richard Gere. But where the Moverman film formally works toward a kind of deconstruction of the traditional showy star vehicle, “The Benefactor” stumbles into all the traps and snares of the late-career vanity project, and with Renzi’s inexperience showing in his reluctance to rein Gere in, we get a performance that is a lot bigger than the film it’s in. The stretchmarks show.
The problems are rooted in the script, which was developed as a Sundance Labs project. Somewhere there is an aspiring-filmmaker handbook which states that since attracting a name star has become more or less vital to getting your independent first feature financed, writing a meaty, eye-catching central role that might appeal to an actor hopeful of reminding everyone of, or even redefining, his appeal as a solid bet. But while the strategy clearly worked here, it feels reverse-engineered, led by a character built from the outside in. So certain elements, many of which are supposed catnip to awarding bodies, feel placed there entirely to get noticed by the kind of star anxious to get onto that radar: a mild but not disfiguring disability, a drug addiction, a Tragic Incident in the recent past. Watching “The Benefactor” it’s hard to shake the feeling that the filmmakers just really wanted to get a film made — any film — and devised the one they felt had the best shot at that, rather than having any burning desire to tell this exact story.
A lack of urgency that amounts to narrative inertia, instead of being intrigued by or invested in the eponymous character’s self-sustaining predicaments, the film quickly becomes merely a series of episodes and interludes, until it stops and everything sorts itself out via the unlikely medium of an apology to a baby. These contrived episodes all center on Franny (Gere) a magnetic, eccentric man of seemingly unlimited wealth and leisure — he lives in a luxury hotel apartment, owns a private hospital — you know, relatable stuff like that. He is popular and charismatic, beloved by even sullen, seriously ill, bedridden children. Indeed, it seems like there is no one he cannot make a connection with, usually via a grand gesture or a theatrical flourish. But his feelings of guilt for the car accident deaths of his two best friends Bobby and Mia (and indeed he should feel bad, as should Renzi, for securing two such welcome actors as Dylan Baker and Cheryl Hines and then killing them off in the prologue) have driven him to a fully-fledged, if high-functioning, liquid morphine addiction. Five years after the accident, which happened while he was in the back seat irrepressibly horseplaying with Bobby who was driving, he needs a cane to walk, and loses swathes of time in in a drug addled haze on his sofa. It appears he has little to live for.
But then a phone rings and Olivia (Dakota Fanning), or “Poodles” as he calls her, Bobby and Mia’s daughter, announces she’s moving back after a five-year absence, and beyond that, she is pregnant and married to Luke (Theo James). Franny takes this as an excuse to get off the sofa, get a haircut and start to indulge his world-class boundary issues by essentially buying his way into Olivia and Luke’s life. He gets Luke a position at his hospital, buys Olivia’s childhood home and gives it to them as a gift, pays off Luke’s six-figure student loans. His redemption seems bound up in making Luke and Olivia into a new version of Bobby and Mia, with himself as just an integral part of their lives.
There is something interesting buried here — the idea of the tyranny of generosity, and how much we might consciously or unconsciously expect of the people to whom we give time and love. But with Dakota Fanning’s usual air of far-away-ness often literally complemented by her being offscreen, or away from the action at home pregnantly sitting on a sofa, the majority of that work is done in the relationship between Franny and Theo James’ handsome milquetoast Luke. And Luke’s actual behavior in regards to Franny’s insistent insinuation into their lives is so inconsistent with the peeveishness of his stated reactions that we can’t help but despise him a little bit. “I’m absolutely not going to take ecstasy with you” the promising young doctor adamantly exclaims to Franny during a seemingly unmotivated night on the town (while his pregnant wife, and supposed apple of Franny’s eye lies listlessly couchbound at home). One quick, cliche smash cut later and the two of them are in a taxi on a Molly high, leaning their heads out of the windows and howling like dogs. He lives in the house Franny bought them, works at the well-paid job Franny arranged and for all his protestations and pique, when it comes right down to it, Luke is putty in Franny’s over-eager hands. So much so that we’re almost surprised he has the spine to refuse to supply Franny with more morphine after his regular supply dries up. But that would be a Bad Thing to do, and where transgressions are indulged throughout, no one in this universe of Renzi’s is actually bad. In fact most of their problems arise from all of them trying to be too nice to one another, leaving lots unsaid in the name of not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings.
Mostly, though, it’s the Richard Gere show and within Renzi’s scenario and sometimes even within single scenes, he is certainly given the latitude to swing from manic charming high to desperate angry low and back again. So the film’s best scenes are with Franny when he’s away from the wateriness of Olivia and Luke. Though even these moments can come marred by rather obvious soundtrack cuts, often related to Franny’s mercurial internal weather system — “My Girl” when he’s up, “The Dark End of the Street” when he’s down. Elsewhere rising composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans‘ orchestral score feels unusually anonymous.
The essential problem with “The Benefactor” is that it promises a minute character study, but Franny, though embodied by a game Gere who in all fairness does visit places in his performance we have rarely seen him even stop by before, is less a person than a collection of quirks. And his wealth is problematic too for the purposes of us relating to him: he’s “a philanthropist” but we get no sense of history from him, no real idea where this money came from, nor how it has influenced his development, only that it provides the vehicle for him to act erratically at high-class parties and buy large houses on a whim. This is “rich” not as a description of financial status, but as a character trait, and as such it needs more accounting for than we get here. As it is, with “The Benefactor” we get a character study of a character almost entirely composed of screenwriting conveniences and actorly flourishes — some sort of mythological beast that it’s hard to believe could ever actually exist, let alone relate to or feel for: Richard Gere as a troubled billionaire unicorn. [C]