A flamboyant turn by Richard Gere is the heart and soul of “Franny,” an off-kilter character study of a Philadelphia philanthropist whose eccentricities both mask and manifest a dark side. The movie ends in a more conventional place than the one where it begins, yet it still marks a surprising and graceful first fiction feature for writer-director Andrew Renzi. (The helmer’s “Fishtail,” an hourlong doc, showed at Tribeca last year.) Acquired by Samuel Goldwyn Films, “Franny” could, like “Arbitrage,” receive an awards push centered on Gere’s showy and seasoned perf, though this tough-to-classify movie doesn’t have the thriller hook that fed that 2012 release’s boffo day-and-date B.O.
Part of the pleasure of “Franny” is figuring out exactly what the title character is up to. We first see Francis L. Watts (Gere) talking about the design of a children’s-hospital project he’s working on with married college friends Mia and Bobby (Cheryl Hines and Dylan Baker). Soon after, he’s smoking pot in the backseat of their car, when his distracting embrace of Bobby, who’s driving, leads to an accident that kills the couple. (In the clunkiest edit in the film, Renzi melodramatically cuts from the moment of impact to the title card.)
Five years later, Franny — now sporting a cane, a flashy wardrobe and a mane of shoulder-length hair — receives a call from their daughter, Olivia (Dakota Fanning), whom he calls Poodles. She is pregnant, newly married to Luke (Theo James) and wants to move back to Philly. Franny, prone to expensive gestures of friendship, is extremely eager to help them out.
Without prompting, the King of Philadelphia (as Franny is called at one point) buys the house that Olivia grew up in and pays off Luke’s student loan, in addition to getting him a job at the children’s hospital. Franny has little regard for others’ privacy — in a flashback, he jumps onto a bed where Mia and Bobby have been sleeping — and his unclear, shifting intentions begin to alarm Luke. (“I want to show you off!” he announces of Luke’s presence at a fundraiser.) Franny has no family and no job. For a time, Renzi keeps his sexuality ambiguous, though that turns out to be a red herring. (Nor does his fortune have a surreptitious, Gatsby-esque provenance.) The movie signals that it’s about to take a more familiar direction when Franny corners Luke in a dressing room — and asks him to refill a morphine prescription.
It’s here that “Franny” sheds its more intriguing mysteries and becomes a study of a lonely man whose vast resources can’t dispel his guilt or demons. Renzi says the character was inspired by John E. DuPont, although “Foxcatcher” viewers will have trouble recognizing any of Steve Carell’s interpretation in Gere’s exuberant, ostentatious perf. Franny is a deliberately off-putting character, but the role is a better showcase for Gere’s movie-star charisma than his introspective work in “Time Out of Mind.” (In both films, there are moments of indulgence that make you wish someone would walk in from off camera and hand the actor an Oscar, just to get it over with.)
Joe Anderson’s supple 35mm lensing lends a sinister shading to nighttime encounters while adding an understated elegance to the high-society scenes. The ambience is enhanced by costume designer Malgosia Turzanska’s selection of suits, robes and shades.