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THE BENEFACTOR (2015) review

January 21, 2016

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written by: Andrew Renzi
produced by: Thomas B. Fore, Jason Michael Berman and Jay Schuminsky
directed by: Andrew Renzi
rated: unrated
runtime: 92 min.
U.S. release date: April 17, 2015 (Tribeca Film Fest) and January 15, 2016 (limited/VOD/Amazon & iTunes)  

 

There’s a scene in the drama,”The Benefactor”, where a character who has benefited from the unsolicited financial assistance of the title character, yet confesses to his benefactor, “…you’re kind of annoying”. He’s not wrong. Richard Gere is kind of annoying here – the character he plays and his acting –  in this feature-length directorial debut from writer/director Andrew Renzi. The veteran actor is known for effortlessly portraying both charming and mysterious characters, but here he’s cranked it up to eleven, offering spurts of energetic eruptions, leaving little room for nuance.

It’s not an awful performance from Gere though and it’s not that I don’t like him as an actor in general. It’s just that there are many of the mannerisms the actor is known for are on display here, providing a noticeable familiarity instead of anything surprising or new. Basically, you’ll get the Richard Gere you’ve come to know and not much more.

Gere plays Franny, a Pennsylvania philanthropist bachelor of mysterious wealth and as the movie starts, we witness him hanging out with his close married friends  (Dylan Baker and Cheryl Hines, both uncredited) and their college-bound daughter, Olivia (Dakota Fanning). We learn Franny is the financial backer of children’s hospital that he is involved in developing (he may be a child psychologist as well, it’s unclear) and his friends have been involved in the planning stages. Based on what we hear from his friends as they discuss how the hospital interior should look and feel, we get the idea that Franny is quite insistent and is not used to the word “no”.

We then pick up five years later to learn Franny was the sole survivor of a vehicle wreck that left his two friends dead and their daughter, whom he affectionately called “Poodles”, without parents. Franny has let himself go – hiding behind his cast away-looking long white hair and beard, while mixing morphine into his steady flow of beverages – and living alone in a posh hotel suite in Philadelphia, leaving only to visit a sick boy at his hospital.

 

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Then he gets a call from Olivia – er, Poodles – causing him to perk up. Suddenly, he finds a reason to come out of his self-chosen exile. She wants to see him and hope he’ll free himself to meet-up. What’s behind this interest in the daughter of his dead friends? What does he hope to accomplish re-integrating himself into her life? Well, we revisit these questions throughout the film – and come to the obvious conclusion through some not-so-subtle writing and performances – that Franny seeks redemption and atonement. His carefree facade is so glaringly fake that it doesn’t matter how obvious he comes across – showing up at a fundraiser all smiles and outgoing, but pained internally.

This is where he meets a now-pregnant Olivia who’s married to a doctor named Luke (Theo James, “Divergent”) and in no time Franny invites himself into the lives of this newlywed couple. He goes out of his way to get land Luke a position at the hospital, completely pays off the guy’s student loans and purchases the couple the country home Olivia grew up in – all of it without asking, like an imposing nice guy/lurker that can’t be shooed away. Worse yet, Franny seems to be within eyesight every time the couple turns around, with his sly squinty smile. He begins pal around with Luke – calling him “Lukie” (say what? what’s with this guy and nicknames?) – and taking him out for dinner, drinks and ecstasy, all while pregnant Olivia sits at home in her loneliness. Franny’s generous and invasive behavior causes Luke’s personal space alarm to go off and the doctor is soon witness to his benefactor’s destructive downward spiral.

“The Benefactor” skims over heavy subject matter such as grief, guilt, substance abuse and the abuse of power. It tries to include all of those elements, but never really takes the time to appropriately delve into one or the other. Frank’s love language is give, give and give – without any consideration whether or not he should or if the receiver is interested. He’s the exact opposite of kindness without expectations. You can see how that would be smothering – annoying (to reiterate). Gere is great at portraying such a character, but at the same time his performance is so determined to convince us at every turn how he’s going about what he’s conveying. He may be the focal point of “The Benefactor” but he’s a bit too obvious and, as a result, somewhat distracting in the role.

 

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There are times in “The Benefactor” when it feels like his young co-stars don’t know what to do with Gere. Honestly, it could be that Gere’s acting is better than Renzi’s screenplay, but it’s hard to say definitively since what I’ve watched is so emblazoned in my memory. We’ve watched Dakota Fanning grow up on the big-screen and my take away from each performance is how increasingly catatonic she becomes with each new role. As for Theo James – I remain as unimpressed with his work as I did when I first saw him in “Divergent”. These two aren’t awful actors by any means, but their work here won’t turn any heads.

The further we get into “The Benefactor” the more we see it emphasize Franny’s debilitating addiction. As his meds dry out his inevitable breakdown occurs. He becomes both frightened and crazed, like a wounded animal. Through most of what we see, Gere is good, but there’s just a sense of grandstanding in his acting at time. It becomes distracting after a while.

There’s a scene in an empty pharmacy late at night where we find the character desperately trying to refill his prescription of liquid morphine. It’s an intense scene tries to start out slow and naturally build, but then Gere barrels through the scene with eruptions and outbursts, when the scene clearly could’ve benefitted from a simmering internal combustion. While watching, I couldn’t help but to think of a similar scene that Julianne Moore had in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia” – check it out for yourself and see how writing, direction and acting perfectly aligned can deliver a more powerful and convincing moment – that’s how heightened hysteria is done. Maybe I’m being too harsh on a writer/director’s directorial debut, but one can always get input before letting a final cut go.

There is an interesting yet unexplored concept of addiction here. Not the addiction of drugs, but the addiction of the wealthy that consume themselves with giving – that may seem like an oxymoron, but I bet there examples out there of such behavior and I’d be interested to see that explored more. It’s not in this movie though. This is a movie that could’ve focused on one area to delve deeper or jus sat on Gere and pulling a more layered, internal performance out of the actor. Ultimately, “The Benefactor” will be for viewers curious to see what Gere does, knowing that the actor has delivered in the past and hoping he’ll provide something engaging here. Not quite, unfortunately.

 

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RATING: **

 

 

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