Though we know money can’t buy happiness, it’s ingrained in our DNA to at least try (hence, the recent ticket-buying frenzy for the recent $1.5 billion Powerball jackpot). The rich but lonely protagonist is a familiar motif in movies, from Robert Redford in Indecent Proposal to Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood to Steve Carell in Foxcatcher and countless others. Richard Gere’s Franny, the lead in writer-director Andrew Renzi’s first feature film, The Benefactor, is the latest to join this millionaire lonely hearts club.
While there is potential here for an intriguing philosophical drama about money and control, Renzi fails to capitalize on those themes, and instead relies heavily on character study. It’s too bad the main character is such a turnoff. Philanthropist Franny is an annoyingly odd individual, whose stifling, albeit well-intentioned, actions can’t even buy the audience’s sympathies in his hour of need.
An enigmatic and possessive Philadelphia-based gajillionaire, Franny tries to control the lives of the people closest to him. We’ll use the technical term “gajillions” to reference his wealth, because in attempting to keep Franny mysterious, Renzi never reveals how much money he has, how he got it or why he doesn’t have to share it. In fact, viewers know nothing about his family, or even his sexual orientation, which could have provided some much-needed context for Franny’s motives.
As the film opens, Franny is excited about financing a new hospital’s construction with the support of his college friends Bobby (Dylan Baker) and Mia (Cheryl Hines). The couple and their college-bound daughter Olivia (Dakota Fanning) are like family to Franny. Through small but brilliant “tells,” the talented Gere presents a man who could be suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome or could easily place somewhere on the autism scale. There’s a moment early in the film in which Franny sits on the floor to talk to Olivia as she packs for college. Gere leans in a little too close, and for a split-second we wonder if Franny’s intentions are less than pure. We later come to understand that he doesn’t understand boundaries—both physical and emotional—at all.
After a tragedy shatters his idyllic life with his pseudo-family, Franny spins out of control. Fast-forward five years, and the once suave philanthropist transforms into an unkempt, pill-popping hermit. He’s holed up at a grand hotel, a la Eloise at the Plaza. His life takes a turn for the better when, out of the blue, newly married Olivia calls Franny. She wants to come back to Philadelphia, but her husband Luke (Theo James) needs a job. Since Luke’s a doctor, and Franny owns a hospital, it’s kismet. In return for the favor, Franny feels he’s entitled to insert himself into and manage every aspect of the couple’s lives. But two thirds into the film, things take a jarring turn. The Benefactor becomes a run-of-the-mill story of a junkie wrestling with addiction after his doctor cuts him off from his pain pills. While money can’t buy love, it’s really hard to believe it won’t buy Franny his illicit prescriptions, either.
A Philadelphia native, Renzi became fascinated with the mythology surrounding John Eleuthère du Pont, the Olympic wrestling benefactor-turned-murderer played by Carell in Foxcatcher. Renzi and cinematographer Joe Anderson have crafted an ode to the city and its tony suburbs, taking advantage of the autumnal scenery of Eastern Pennsylvania, much like director Bennett Miller did in the aforementioned film.
There are a number of parallels between du Pont and Franny—the wealth, the loneliness, the eccentricity and the inability to make real human connections, among them—but the darker side of du Pont made the character so fascinating to watch. There are no allusions to Franny’s past to give the audience any perspective on his mindset and actions. Despite Gere’s best efforts—he easily alternates between annoying and charming—Franny remains bland by comparison. Fanning’s role is largely underwritten. (And does anyone else think Olivia has one of the longest trimesters on film, gauging by the girth of her belly?) Although it’s Olivia and Franny who have history together, Luke’s struggle between instant wealth and sweat equity emerges as a far more interesting storyline. It’s a shame the power struggle between Luke and Franny isn’t examined further.
The Benefactor is a deeply personal project for Renzi, who infuses his own struggles into each of the three main characters. He’s said the story and its production provided an emotional release—a chance to exorcise bad life choices and past mistakes. Unfortunately, to the viewer, the film comes across as more self-indulgent than satisfying.
Director: Andrew Renzi
Writer: Andrew Renzi
Starring: Richard Gere, Dakota Fanning, Theo James
Release Date: January 15, 2016 in theaters and on demand.
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.