I’ve confessed on this site before that I love a good Lifetime movie. By that, I mean I relish in a story of seduction, betrayal, regret and death that offers a blend of wooden and over-the-top performances, and a juicy twist that might be nonsensical or woefully predictable, but makes my brain buzz like I’ve had too much coffee. Partway through Richard Gere’s new movie, this low bar of guilty pleasure was all I was hoping for from The Benefactor. And still it disappointed me.
Here, Gere stars as Franny, a ludicrously wealthy recluse who has no discernible job, no family, and no friends in the wake of a fatal car accident. That tragedy left him limping, his married best friends dead, and their college-bound daughter Olivia (Dakota Fanning) alone. In a few short minutes, writer/director Andrew Renzi rushes through Olivia and Franny’s pre-accident bliss, through the accident itself, then to the MOVING ON title card: “Five Years Later.”
There, we catch up with Franny in a rundown hotel suite, where he’s got long shaggy grey hair, a collection of pain pills and an addiction to sucking back cocktails of cough syrup and seltzer. Around here is when I realized this was going to be bad. Just too many cliches right off the bat to be anything but a bad, hopefully laughable Lifetime bad. But nope. The film trudges along without pace, stakes, conflict or any form of engaging drama.
Olivia comes back into Franny’s life, newly married, pregnant and broke. No problem! He gives her doctor husband Luke (blandsome ingendud Theo James) a job at the hospital he owns. Oh, that makes Luke feel awkward. But just for a second. Moving on. Franny gives them a house! And not just a house, but the one Olivia grew up in! Wow. Luke feels awkward for a second. Moving On! Franny corners Luke in a dressing room and makes a joke about blow jobs before demanding he write him a prescription for painkillers! Luke feels really awkward. MOVING ON!
I kept waiting for something sinister to develop. Like maybe we learn Luke married Olivia because she was always talking about her crazy wealthy lonely uncle-figure? Or perhaps Olivia suspects Franny had something to do with her parents’ death and wanted revenge? Or Franny had some salacious motives of his own beyond being a lonely junkie in need of people and pills? Maybe he knows his own death is imminent and wants to do right by Olivia before he goes? Nope. Nope to all of these. Sure, Franny is hiding the secret that he blames himself for the crash (Never hug the driver of a moving car, kids!), but Renzi crushes any suspense there by revealing the crash in full five-minutes in. And the way it plays out, the accident looks like it was unavoidable even if his buddy hadn’t been briefly distracted by overzealous bro-nanigans.
Instead, The Benefactor follows Gere into a dull downward spiral of drug-seeking behavior, manipulation and substance abuse. Olivia is sidelined so that Theo James can furrow his eyebrows at Franny’s “eccentricities” a bunch. Then we collide into a sloppy climax with such smoldering dialogue as “You’re just a little girl who got knocked up! You’re not a princess!”
Just when you might think these two could sever ties for good, predictability hits hard with Chekhov’s pregnancy. A baby means new life, not just literally but figuratively. And in the end, we know Franny will overcome his demons not because of anything set up in the plot, but because the film actually ends with him shaving off his scruffy grey beard. Haircuts mean significant internal change! Clean shaven means clean living!
No twists. No turns. Just tedious tropes.
Admittedly, it’s not all bad. Gere wears a kicky red scarf sometimes. He’s told he looks “like a wizard,” finds flimsy excuse to sing “My Girl,” and pronounces bodega like it’s a word he’s never encountered in his 66 years. (Buh-Day-Go!) But mostly, it’s bad. The boring kind.