‘The Benefactor’: Richard Gere in the wrong gear as guilt-ridden millionaire

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When Richard Gere is in the right zone with the right role, he can be a compelling screen presence.

I’m not just talking about the popular roles in hits such as “Pretty Woman” and “An Officer and a Gentleman” and “Runaway Bride.” One could argue Gere’s best work is in offbeat, original films such as “The Hoax” and “Arbitrage” and “Dr. T and the Women.”

Sometimes, though, when Gere shifts into Go Big or Go Home mode in offbeat, smaller projects, he crash-lands.

Unfortunately that’s the case with “The Benefactor,” with Gere delivering a performance so self-consciously ACTORISH it often takes us right out of the film.

Writer-director Andrew Renzi explores an intriguing premise: how some members of the 1 percent — or should we say the .001 percent — revel in bestowing their wealth upon the less fortunate, in part out of generosity but also because it makes them feel less guilty about their sins.

Gere plays Franny, a multi-multi-millionaire with a seemingly endless supply of charm, money and noble causes. Dylan Baker and Cheryl Hines play his best friends Bobby and Mia, and seeing as their fates are sealed in the prologue, it’s not much of a SPOILER ALERT to tell you Franny is partially responsible for the early exits of Bobby and Mia. (And what a loss for us that Baker and Hines have only glorified cameos in this film.)

Cut to five years later. The formerly clean-cut, impeccably attired Franny is now living something of a Howard Hughes-ian existence — holed up in a dark and enormous suite in a hotel he owns, sporting an unfortunate beard and long white hair, addicted to morphine.

When Franny gets a call from Olivia (Dakota Fanning), the pregnant daughter of his old friends Bobby and Mia, he springs to life, cutting his hair and trimming his beard, donning a colorful outfit, throwing open the musty curtains, letting light into the room, heading out into the world. He’s back!

Franny buys the house where Olivia grew up and gives it to her. He hands a top job at the private hospital he runs to Luke (Theo James), who is a young doctor and the father of Olivia’s child. He pays off Luke’s medical school loans. He gets deeply involved in the lives of the young couple. Luke is grateful for Franny’s assistance but keeps wondering: Is this guy ever going to leave us alone?

For much of the film’s middle section, Olivia is relegated to the sidelines as Franny mentors and manipulates Luke. Some scenes require Gere to bounce around the screen with the slightly disturbing manic intensity of the late Robin Williams or Bill Murray — but it’s just not Gere’s forte. More than a few moments are cringe-worthy.

At times “The Benefactor” plays like a creepy stalker movie. Has Franny become so unhinged he’ll do something terrible to Olivia and/or Luke? Or is he just a desperate, guilt-soaked addict, seeking redemption?

More times than not, “The Benefactor” takes the less interesting fork in the road.

[s3r star=2/4]

Samuel Goldwyn Films presents a film written and directed by Andrew Renzi. Running time: 90 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center and on demand. 

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