Did Richard Gere change his agent along with his hair color? Somebody should join his entourage who can talk him out of devoting his considerable talent to the theme of misery with a message. Most recently seen as a homeless New York vagrant living out of garbage cans in Time Out of Mind, which he made to show the plight of the disenfranchised in an apathetic society, he now turns up as the self-loathing centerpiece in The Benefactor, about the way rich people give money away to charity for the wrong reasons, like seeking approval to ease a guilty conscience. It’s an unusual subject that serves both the star’s public devotion to social concerns (in an election campaign year that plays like a comic book, it takes a swipe at limousine liberals) and his fearless disregard for the perks of marketable stardom (he looks awful in it, like a slum bum on the Bowery). But as a memorable work of cinema, it misses every important mark by a mile.
THE BENEFACTOR ★
Written and directed by: Andrew Renzi
The catalytic converter of this clumsy first feature by writer-director Andrew Renzi is a filthy rich but emotionally immature Philadelphia philanthropist named Francis L. Watts, famous in the press by the nickname “Franny.” When he accidentally causes the deaths of the doctor who is his best friend and the doctor’s wife by horsing around in a speeding automobile, he survives with permanent scars and the pain of a terminal guilt complex that his morphine addiction cannot ease. Five years later, the couple’s daughter Olivia (a grownup Dakota Fanning) returns to her roots, pregnant and married to new husband Luke, a handsome but struggling young doctor (British actor Theo James, sporting a perfect American accent).
Franny, now a pudgy, bearded slob and genuine eccentric, tries to make amends for his dark past by buying the couple a house, paying off Luke’s student loans, creating a position for him on the staff of the hospital he privately endows, and rewarding the young man with a coveted seat on the board of directors at his favorite charity foundation. His generosity is too good to be true, and it doesn’t take Luke long to realize it’s a ploy to buy their affection and guarantee himself an illegal supply of free drugs. Ninety minutes of aimless and wrenching self-pity eventually grows tiresome, even when an actor as charismatic as Richard Gere does everything but open his veins to prove he has a heart. But the script is full of holes and the director lacks the experience to pass the time with impact.
With the burden of taking up the slack resting on Mr. Gere’s shoulders, he works harder than necessary to fill the gaps, including in a hospital scene where he cuts himself with a knife to get painkillers in the E.R., and a corny wedding scene where he bursts into a drunken musical arrangement of “My Girl” that is more embarrassing than amusing. For me, the real laugh in The Benefactor is the naïve conclusion that an act of self-improvement as simple as shaving off a scruffy Santa Claus beard can even cure drug addiction.
All right, some important points are made before this awkward film ends: Giving doesn’t make you a good person, and philanthropy in America can sometimes be suspect. But the limber style, with scenes like detached limbs, and the uneasy mix of rage, slapstick and unconvincing plot maneuvers turn the girl and her husband, whom Franny is grooming to inherit the legacy of the man he killed five years earlier, to walk away, disillusioned. The audience follows.