Benjamin (2018)

Netflix and chill.

(2018) Romantic Comedy (ArtsploitationColin Morgan, Anna Chancellor, Phénix Brossard, Jack Rowan, Jessica Raine, Joel Fry, Mayo Simon, Mark Kermode, Gabe Gilmour, Arnab Chanda, Robin Peters, James Bloor, Jessie Cave, Mawaan Rizwan, James Lailey, Michele Belgrand, Ellie Kendrick, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Alex Lowe, Laura Matassa, Kriss Dosanjh, Joanne Howarth. Directed by Simon Amstell

 

We all have a tendency to be our own worst enemies, saying the wrong thing at exactly the worst possible time, or overthinking a project and thereby ruining it. Our insecurities have the unsettling knack of getting the better of us.

That’s true for Benjamin Oliver (Morgan), an indie film director who won a BAFTA for his first film – “the best thing I could have done is make that film and then died,” he quips – but has been struggling mightily to avoid a sophomore slump with his second film. However, in true Benjamin fashion he has taken a simple relationship and rendered it a gauntlet of pretension by adding odd clips of Buddhist monks mouthing pithy aphorisms that ultimately sound smart but don’t make the film any better, a meta conceit that one has to applaud the filmmaker for recognizing and poking fun at.

Benjamin has a group of friends who are about as messed up as he is; his acerbic producer (Chancellor) who spends much of her time propping up Benjamin’s insecurities; Stephen (Fry), a stand-up comedian whose depression sometimes turns his act into the worst therapy session imaginable; Billie (Raine), the publicist who tries in vain to mitigate Benjamin’s instincts.

Add into this mix Noah (Brossard), a fey French musician trying to make an impact on the extremely competitive London music scene who becomes Benjamin’s romantic interest, despite the fact that Benjamin is certain that he is incapable of love.

To be honest, I’m not all that familiar with the work of comedian Simon Amstell, although to be fair we Yanks have had a lot on our minds lately so following the careers of comedians across the pond hasn’t been high on our list of priorities. Still, judging from I can see here, it isn’t going to be long before he’s as well-known on both sides of the Atlantic. He’s got that droll British sense of humor down, but tempers it with observational humor that is at times uncanny; while there are some barbs directed both at London’s art underground and at the state of romance in England in general, much of what is commented here is pretty universal. Everyone has been guilty of blurting out that one conversation-killing remark in a room full of people that you may or may not be trying to impress. I know I have.

I have this categorized as a romantic comedy, but that really isn’t precisely right. It’s not like the rom-coms you might be used to; it’s more accurately a comedy that involves romance. The movie really isn’t about Benjamin’s romantic issues, although they play a part. This is about Benjamin’s relationship with himself, and his self-destructive flaws. There’s some poignancy, but it’s not a downer of a fiilm; nor is it a life-affirming celebration either. This is the kind of movie that exhibits how life is for certain people in particular circumstances, while giving those circumstances and those people a bit of a poke in the backside.

The movie is a bit on the twee side, sort of like Belle and Sebastian covering all of Morrissey’s greatest hits and if you understand that reference, this is the movie for you. There’s enough of the jaded romantic in Amstell to make the humor biting at times, but not enough to drown the movie in ennui. There are a few false steps here and there, but not as many as you might think; The only thing that keeps me from giving this a higher score is that there is a sense that this is aimed at a certain niche of indie film buffs that might not resonate as clearly with the mainstream, but that’s quite all right – not every movie needs to appeal to the crowd that awaits the next Marvel movie with breathless anticipation.

REASONS TO SEE: Some very droll humor that fans of British comedy will love.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit on the twee side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and sexual references as well as drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Loosely based on director Simon Amstell’s own experiences.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Kino Now, Vimeo, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/11/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews; Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Beautiful Thing
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
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