Film Review: The Benefactor

At the heart of Andrew Renzi’s directorial debut The Benefactor is a kernel of an intriguing character study about the price of love and forgiveness and the desire to buy both. Surrounding it is a tangled mass of loose narrative threads, none of which offer any real satisfaction and most of which fall somewhere on a scale from ham-fisted to half-baked. Not even Richard Gere can salvage proceedings, chewing the scenery in an ebullient central turn that channels recent-period Pacino a lot more than it was presumably intending. In some ways, this feels like a badly written cousin to Nicholas Jarecki’s under-appreciated Arbitrage, but all the more damning is Oren Moverman’s Time Out of Mind, which arrives in UK cinemas imminently and acts as a painful but timely reminder of what Gere is capable of.

He’s certainly far from stretched as the flamboyant and grating Franny Watts, a dizzyingly rich philanthropist wallowing a cesspool of discarded dollar bills, empty drug bottles, self-pity and guilt. There’s a scene early on when he calls out to Dakota Fanning’s Olivia but when she turns around he’s nowhere to be seen. From her perspective this seems like he’s teasing in his typically raucous way, but instead he’s revealed from the opposite angle to be summoning the courage to face her. When he turns back into view, he’s beaming again. It’s far from subtle, but it makes for an interesting dynamic in a character desperate for adoration and consumed by guilt over the death of Olivia’s parents which he was inadvertently responsible for. There are turgid flashbacks to the accident which begin to bore after their first appearance, but it gives the impression of a man haunted every time he closes his eyes.

Any inner turmoil or demons are quickly externalised, however and all semblance of nuanced emotional conflict give way to arch and insipid melodrama. There is something almost thriller-esque about the prospect of Franny’s increasingly generous donations to the life of now-pregnant Olivia and her young husband Luke (Theo James) and their subsequent anxiety about accepting them. This element is played up in the US tagline for the film that warns that ‘His help comes at a price’. In reality, there is a confused homoerotic undercurrent that amounts to nothing and a tendency of Franny’s to emasculate Luke with a paternal flourish that annoys more than it unnerves.

Where Franny’s long-held guilt begins in creepily buying Olivia the house she grew up – and abandoned after her parents death – it quickly drops its more unconventional investigation of responsibility and atonement. Instead, it lurches into a ticklist of tired substance abuse plot points filling scenes with ripe melodrama and bothering little to string them coherently together with anything more than a through line of Gere’s downward spiral. The polished visuals and earnest supporting turns from Fanning and James seem only to exacerbate the problem making it feel all the more hollow. If you’re hankering for a fix of Gere, hold on one more week and check out the far superior Time Out of Mind. Sadly, The Benefactor lives up to the banality of its title.

Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson

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