The Benefactor: Underfunded, by Aaron Pinkston
Richard Gene seemed primed for a comeback after his role in the excellent Arbitrage back in 2012. His performance proved he was still a cool charmer that could play an upper-class asshole. At the time some thought he was a sleeper for an Oscar nomination that has never come in his long career. His next turn showed his age as the romantic lead in the commercially successful sequel to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and he then gunned for awards once again in Time Out of Mind – a meaty role in a fine film that gained absolutely no traction in this loaded landscape. Andrew Renzi’s The Benefactor is another character study in line where Gere’s career may be heading as he’s aging.
In The Benefactor, Gere plays Franny, a wealthy Philadelphia philanthropist who loses his best friends in a car accident in which he was directly involved. Five years later, his friends’ daughter (Dakota Fanning) returns home pregnant and married, looking to rebuild a relationship with her former family friend. As Franny forces himself more involved in the young couple’s lives, we begin to see his depression, addictions, and cracks show.
The film’s major problem is that it doesn’t seem to know what it is and once it finally settles in there is a bit of a let down. Throughout the first half of The Benefactor, it is difficult to trust Franny. Music cues, character reactions, creepy sexual undertones, and other hints tell us that he may not be exactly who he says he is, that he might be a con man or dangerous in some way – setting up Richard Gere as a slightly off but powerful man in between a young couple, pregnant young woman and all, is a picture perfect recipe for a thriller. The film goes so far as to have characters openly wonder about how Franny got his money and as he becomes close with Olivia and Luke they are visibly uncomfortable. I was waiting for the big reveal at every turn, thinking The Benefactor was going to become a much different movie. Perhaps I’m too sensitive with standard thriller cliches and that’s on me, but many do come through The Benefactor without an ultimate payoff.
Otherwise, for what eventually comes of the story, The Benefactor is a relatively quiet drama about a once-successful, troubled old man trying to make a final grasp at human connection. Gere is reliable as Franny, an odd character who is given a few big dramatic moments. Dakota Fanning is mostly wasted as the expectant mother while the film focuses on building between Franny and her husband. Theo James (Divergent) plays the young doctor who offers most of the film’s reluctance toward openly trusting Franny. There isn’t a lot in his performance, but James certainly has an on-screen presence that could look to regular leading man roles in the future.
As the film becomes a fairly standard redemption tale, it’s easy to see how the initial shadiness surrounding Franny has definite negative effects on the character. His emotional journey is truncated almost entirely to the third act, which doesn’t allow the script or the performance to more fully flesh out past the generic beats. The Benefactor ultimately doesn’t have anything interesting to say about the character other than his surface struggles. This is especially frustrating as the film seems to have bigger aspirations than what the thriller setup would provide.