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There is an all-too-brief moment at the start of The Benefactor that really works. A white-haired, heavily-bearded Franny (Richard Gere) is sitting in a darkened room, despondent, a cane at his side, drinking medicine from the bottle. He’s suffered a terrible ordeal, some of it his own fault, which he seems to carry with great weight. It’s a startling good moment that ends with a phone call.
That phone call is from ‘Poodles’ (Dakota Fanning), the nickname for the daughter of a his best friends who died in a car accident five years earlier. He was also in the car and was the only survivor. She hasn’t seen or talked to the man who was a part of her life for nearly every day since the accident. She’s married and pregnant and her new husband is a doctor. It just so happens that Franny is a billionaire who owns a children’s hospital and so, gives the man a job, thrilled to have Poodles back in town. By now you should be tiring of the word Poodles.
We’ll get right to the question. How is Franny so rich? Why is he so eccentric? What does he really want from Poodles and her husband? Why does Franny seem to be sexually obsessed with Poodle’s husband? Why are there so many questions with no answers? A hodgepodge of dead ends and twists with no straights, The Benefactor feels aimless and desperate, teasing for more than it can and does deliver.
That begins and ends with the Franny character, though that is not the only fault. Fanny is a hooked on morphine, yet is constantly out of it. He tries to cajole Poodle’s husband Luke (Theo James), or as Franny calls him, ‘Lukie’, to prescribe them, but won’t. He tries to bribe a pharmacist with an expensive watch, but he won’t either. So he goes home in agony, writhing about his bed, but wait. Isn’t he a billionaire? He does and gets things throughout the movie that are clearly questionable, but morphine is the thing that he can’t get? But it doesn’t end there. In his withdrawal state, he gets Lukie to take a hit of ecstasy and they go about the town in a typical drug-induced cliche-ridden stupor and end up at Franny’s house where they fall into bed together. Franny confesses to his guilt about the accident and the two cuddle. The end. Well, of that scene anyway, and anything about it. It’s manipulative and smacks of dishonesty because it never goes anywhere and neither plot point pans out.
We are supposed to ask, “Who is Franny?” but it’s hard to ask the question when we have no empathy for him in the first place. Gere, probably under direction, overdoes it in almost every scene, and at one point commits a terrible act, yet even then tries to fool us into one thing before it becomes another. This all leads to a wildly over-the-top moment that again, sets up something but then doesn’t deliver. Shameful.
If there’s anyone to blame, it must be director Andrew Renzi who simply can’t find the right tone. Overwrought to a degree, the film is crowded with odd and awkward musical choices, songs and cues that are contrived, dialogue that does nothing but fill a scene and connect to nothing beyond, and unimaginative staging and cinematography that is lifeless and rudimentary. And you can bet every single dollar you have that whatever the film tries to imply about its conflicts will be cleanly swept up and washed away with three or four sentences and a happy Motown song before the credits role. I guess that’s a spoiler, but honestly, you shouldn’t be surprised.
It’s the disappointment that irritates the most. Gere is a great actor but wasted here. Fanning is barely in the movie, speaks maybe five lines and is used only as a prop to make us think there is something else going on. But of course, there isn’t. Her ridiculous name is said more than we see her, and I assure you, even in the gifted hands of Richard Gere, speaking the word ‘Poodles’ in the context that it is given, never ever works. The trailer hinted to something deeper, to a mystery even. In the film, Lukie reminded me Mitch McDeere being wooed by The Firm. Franny swoons all over him but we never learn why, only that he’s Poodle’s husband. He starts to ask questions, and one in particular is meant to hint at something dark and maybe nefarious about Franny’s past. But it’s never answered. In fact, it’s never even brought up again after he asks it. The movie simply moves on, and so should you.
Director(s): Andrew Renzi
Actor(s): Richard Gere, Dakota Fanning, Theo James