An addiction parable that plays out like a home-invasion thriller, Andrew Renzi’s The Benefactor mewls from the heights of privilege and makes a futile plea for empathy. A cloying, punch-drunk Richard Gere stars as Franny, an independently wealthy, perennially single scion who sits at the head of the board of a Philadelphia hospital. While plotting the layout of a new children’s wing with his married best friends (Dylan Baker and Cheryl Hines), he inadvertently causes an automobile accident that leads to the couple’s death. Flash forward five years, and Franny, swigging liquid morphine and sporting an Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer’s mane and beard, is stumbling around an apartment ornate enough to host a Bertrand Bonello film.
Franny slowly emerges from his stupor when he receives a call from Olivia (Dakota Fanning), the newly married and pregnant daughter of his deceased friends. Hearing that Olivia and her husband, Luke (Theo James), are returning to Philadelphia, Franny resolves to help build a life from them, for his own benefit. He purchases Olivia’s childhood home, lands Luke a job at the hospital, and pays off his student loans.
Debut writer-director Andrew Renzi casts a suspicious eye on Franny’s displays of magnanimity, maximizing Gere’s creep factor as Franny further insinuates himself into the lives of the young couple, stage-managing their future. When he’s not popping his head into doorways at inopportune times, Franny’s engaging in flirtatious exchanges with both Olivia and Luke, or performing a (blessedly aborted) rendition of “My Girl” on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Franny is as fabulously wealthy as he is generous, insecure, overbearing, and numbed by substance abuse.
In these moments, The Benefactor scans like an agitated kissing cousin to Foxcatcher. Where Bennett Miller’s lethargic drama buckled under its weighty aspirations to make a Big Statement about America, Renzi treats unfettered wealth as a hyperbolic playground through which to explore masculine insecurity and a middle-aged man’s flailing attempts to escape isolation.
Matters come to a head in the dressing room of a bespoke suit shop, where Franny walks in on a half-naked Luke and, instead of asking for sex, pleads for a refill of his morphine prescription. This could be an intriguing departure from generic expectations, but Gere and Renzi consistently mistake Franny’s exhausting neediness for complexity. The Benefactor assumes at least a shred of inherent sympathy for Franny, because his best friends are dead and because he has an occasional chat with a child in a trauma ward, but the film never offers any sense that the character earned his status. He seems, more provocatively, like a coward, attempting to purchase a surrogate family in order to avoid the trouble of building his own.
The Benefactor, though, avoids these issues as assiduously as Franny does, dismissing his past in a sentence or two in order to flaunt his pathetic present. As matters are presented, it’s impossible to give a shit about him, particularly when a drearily conventional addiction narrative takes hold in the film’s final act. Joe Anderson’s 35mm cinematography bathes streets and interiors in the glow of red traffic lights as Franny bottoms out, melodramatically soliciting the audience’s pity when there’s no one left to pay attention to him. “You don’t have any problems,” Luke says to him at one point. “You’re just a junkie with guilt.” He’s right, but The Benefactor mawkishly offers him redemption all the same.