If you buy into reductive ideas about generations, The Benefactor — Andrew Renzi’s creepy, stately drama of guilt and charity — gains much suggestive resonance. Here’s Richard Gere, that silvery ur-boomer, the American Gigolo now adrift as the depressive who owns the world but prefers not to be out in it. His philanthropist may have built a hospital in his own name, but he molders in a dark palace of a hotel suite, treating his pains with morphine, his beard and mane as crazy as an Oak Ridge Boy’s.
He’s stirred to life again by a phone call from Olivia, played by Dakota Fanning, that ur-millennial, the actress who signaled America had changed by asking, as the little girl in War of the Worlds, whether all the lavish destruction around her was being caused by terrorists. Gere’s billionaire feels responsible for the death of her parents, and to assuage his guilt he endeavors to give her the world. Now that there’s nothing left to build or make in America, this might be the only way a millennial might seize it: find a boomer ready to let some of it go.
The initial conflict is fascinating, and Renzi, in his first fiction feature, steeps us and his actors in the discomforts of class and worth: First Franny (Gere) buys Olivia the house in which she grew up, a gesture she worries over more than relishes. She didn’t earn this. Then Franny gives Luke (Theo James), the father of the child she’s carrying, a prestigious job in that hospital. And then the charismatic creep is forever in their hair, brimming over with love and advice, reinvigorated by the fact that they need what he has. Gere is haunted and unsettling, occasionally flip in that Bill Murray way — he’s adept at fast-talk and warm self-regard, at the showy, defensive poses of a man who only playacts that he’s inviting you in. Renzi sets Gere up for as cringe-worthy a scene as you could imagine: singing “My Girl” with a band at a party meant to honor Olivia and Luke. But Gere finds grace and pathos, even as the setup stings: Of course the white boomer patriarch proves he’s still cool by growl-crooning Motown. My thanks to the filmmakers for not making him rap.
Meanwhile, Fanning’s face brightens and dims at the oppressive largesse. Olivia’s relieved and dismayed, thrilled and queasy, and Fanning, always a smart and careful performer, glances up against each feeling individually until suddenly, with considerable power, striking all at once. Olivia wants to make it without his help, but it’s easy to understand, these days, why she doesn’t shake him off sooner.
Renzi lets shots run long, with lots of talk, multiple setups, and a stew of mixed feelings. Often he and Joe Anderson, who shot the film, isolate the characters amid Franny’s elegantly un-detailed high-end real estate: They’re small and somewhat stunted, and no one can muster feeling enough to warm or cheer the spaces they inhabit.
The drama in the film’s first half often lies in viewers wondering just what kind of movie it will turn out to be — a humanistic drama centered on the clash of generations? A slow-burn thriller in which the man who has everything goes further and further to get the last thing he wants? Sadly, The Benefactor proves less rich and engaging as it settles into its actual genre: It’s yet another troubled-dude-starts-pulling-it-together tale. While Olivia’s offscreen, just vaguely busy being pregnant, Franny presses young Luke to go clubbing, take some Molly, and write him scrips for more morphine. Luke fends off that last request in an intimate, prickling scene, the first of note that James gets.
The focus shifts from Franny’s confused and tortured relationship with Olivia, whom he sees as both daughter and potential source of redemption, to his interactions with her husband. Luke is a doctor already, one who’s had a bad break, so his elevation to a top job doesn’t have much deal-with-the-devil unsavoriness. He doesn’t need Franny’s help the way that Olivia seems to, or that Keanu Reeves’s naïf lawyer needed a sulfurous Al Pacino’s in The Devil’s Advocate. This Luke is pretty much the boss’s son-in-law given a couple years’ head start on his peer group — not much chance for engaging drama in that.
Eventually, Franny runs out of morphine, and we’re given a suite of scenes in which the billionaire breaks down and humiliates himself. These are well shot and -staged, and Renzi’s script showcases some minor ironies: There’s a nice bit in which Franny wails that he owns a hospital but can’t get the painkillers in it. Gere is as strong and game for abasement here as he was in his undervalued homeless drama Time Out of Mind. That film, though, never offered up a movieland solution to its characters’ complex problems. Here, though, all the guilt, pushiness, neediness, and erratic behavior that make Franny interesting slowly grow simpler. Turns out it was an addiction drama all along. You know how, in ghost stories, much of the mystery and urgency seeps out of the narrative once it becomes clear what kind of ghost is causing the trouble — and just what it is that that ghost wants? Something like that happens in The Benefactor once Olivia starts getting scenes and Franny’s desperate for a fix. Instead of being about the complexities of their positions in the world, it’s just about him needing to get into rehab, and since he’s a billionaire you can’t worry too much about how it’s going to go.
Written and directed by Andrew Renzi
Samuel Goldwyn Films
Opens January 15