Over the last few years, last century heartthrob Richard Gere has been busy quietly turning out limited release films that offer opportunities to explore his acting abilities in ways the vast majority of his filmography has not allowed. Gone are the days of the sex thrillers, and tentpole melodramas that once upon a time were his box office bread and butter, but he remains a fascinating and intriguing actor, in no small part due to his contributions to the cinema of Terence Malick and Akira Kurosawa, starring in Days Of Heaven and Rhapsody In August respectively, two masterwork credits that far outshine his contemporaries, and hint at the true thespian inside, or at the very least a desire to step out from the spotlight when the right material comes along. In 2012 he starred in Nicholas Jarecki’s little seen, poorly titled Arbitrage as an anti-hero hedge fund magnate, two years later in 2014 as homeless man checking into Bellevue Hospital in Oren Moverman’s Time Out Of Mind, and now taking a big risk in the narrative feature debut of Andrew Renzi, The Benefactor, about an aging, wounded billionaire philanthropist with a drug addiction, where even though the film itself flounders, Gere is never less than electrifying, delivering a commanding performance that ranks among his career best.
Gere plays Franny, a man for whom money is no object, who sees no difference between owning a hospital and owning the lives of those closest to him, specifically his best friend’s daughter Olivia (Dakota Fanning) and her new doctor husband Luke (Theo James). A few years earlier Olivia’s parents were killed in a car accident, while Fanny survived, and in the ensuing years, becoming plagued with guilt and loneliness, he turned to prescription narcotics to numb the harsh realities. When Olivia resurfaces in his life, after college, Franny seizes on an opportunity to atone for his sins, by buying her childhood home for her and helping her husband land a job in his hospital, but it’s not long before his charity gives way to something far more sinister and threatening as his demons begin to overtake him.
The Benefactor is most successful when it is cataloging the trajectory of Franny’s downfall. From initial scenes of manic hyperactivity where he’s throwing money around and high on life, to later scenes sniveling on the floor of his grand hotel room where he lives, craving a fix, and embarrassing himself in a pharmacy demanding his prescription be filled, Renzi’s film at times feels like a true character study, akin to Leaving Las Vegas, and Gere attacks the role fearlessly, eschewing the vanity that might normally be attached to a Hollywood film of more prestige. For a while The Benefactor juggles time between Gere, Fanning and James, but does so without creating plot lines for the latter two, so when half way through, Renzi decides to solely follow Gere through his withdrawal, while abandoning everyone else, those great scenes ultimately prove fatal to a film that has no idea how to weave its conceit into a story of substance.
Fanning becomes mere window dressing, a marketing face whose scenes amount to little more than filler. Ultimately her character is never developed beyond things she needs to do to precipitate Fanny’s evolution, a strategy which could work, but Renzi spends too much of the film’s first half playing at something greater, teasing a collision of character forces that instead just retreats into Franny’s self-destruction. By the time the credits roll you’ve seen a great performance, but it’s a performance that isn’t grounded in anything real or tangible, that simply cannot resonate beyond its isolated moments, and as such it becomes a great performance muted by its direct-to-video trappings. The Benefactor appears to almost skate by on its actors alone, as if their mere presence is enough to imbue the film with meaning. Sadly that is not the case. Fanning and Gere deserve better, and so does Franny.
The Verdict: Pan