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
NEXT:
Rent-a-Pal

Celeste and Jesse Forever


There is nothing more romantic than smooching in front of a giant fondant ribbon.

There is nothing more romantic than smooching in front of a giant fondant ribbon.

(2012) Romantic Comedy (Sony Classics) Andy Samberg, Rashida Jones, Elijah Wood, Chris Messina, Emma Roberts, Chris D’Elia, Will McCormack, Ari Graynor, Eric Christian Olsen, Shira Lazar, Matthias Steiner, Rebecca Dayan, Janel Parrish, Rich Sommer, Rafi Gavron, Mathew del Negro, Kris Pino, Rafi Gavron, Zoë Hall, Lauren Sanchez, Ashli Dowling. Directed by Lee Toland Krieger
Cinema of the Heart 2016

It is said that it usually isn’t clear when love begins, but it’s always obvious when it ends. Sometimes couples that seem to be made for each other don’t make it; staying in a relationship in the 21st century is no easy task and requires sometimes a lot more of ourselves than we’re willing to give.

Celeste (Jones) and Jesse (Samberg) have been married for six years and they’re everybody’s favorite couple. Celeste is essentially the breadwinner, owning a trendy L.A. agency that has just landed Riley (Roberts), a brand new super-hot pop star. Jesse is an artist but doesn’t seem to have enough gumption to actually produce much in the way of art. Still, they clearly care for each other and share a great deal of love. Everything is perfect – except they’re getting divorced.

Their impending divorce is not terribly well-received by their friends, for whom they have been something of an icon; if these two can’t make it work, how can the rest of us? But most are puzzled by the way the two hang out together all the time, how Jesse lives in his artist studio shed in their back yard while Celeste sleeps in her own bed at night. Why don’t they hate each other? And why oh why are they breaking up in the first place?

However, this idyllic circumstance of two best friends begins to change as things inevitably do. Jesse, whose slacker existence was an issue for the more controlling Celeste suddenly finds himself in a situation that changes his outlook. Celeste is unable to handle the change in Jesse and suddenly finds herself adrift, not ready to move on as Jesse had not been ready to move on initially.  Now it is obvious that Celeste and Jesse aren’t forever.

Jones wrote the film with Will McCormack who has a supporting role as a pot dealing friend of the couple. The film has some smart writing, realistic dialogue (i.e. the characters say things real people actually say) and a hefty dose of heart. It also has a surfeit of indie cliches that definitely reduce my affection for a film that could easily have garnered more of it.

Jones and Samberg are at their best here; both are enormously likable actors who get roles here they can sink their teeth into. Samberg in particular comes off as a much more multi-dimensional performer than he had shown previously on SNL and the Adam Sandberg movies he had done. He has enormous star potential which he shows here and some of his Funny or Die clips. He’s one good role away from the A-list.

Jones has been one of those actresses who never seem to deliver a subpar performance. I’ve always thought her immensely talented and this is one of the first roles in which she really shows off her potential. Celeste is very complex and in some ways unlikable; one feels throughout the movie that Celeste is taking a good thing and tossing it in the waste basket but eventually we begin to see that things aren’t that simple and a lot of that has to do with Jones’ emotional performance.

The movie works when we get into Celeste’s head; Jesse seems to be mainly an instigator for the various things going on there. When the movie tries to be indie-hip, it drags – there is a mumblecore sensibility here that doesn’t quite jibe with the overall mood. When the film gets away from that sense, it works.

Some relationships are meant to be and others, not so much. It is how we handle the not-so-much that prepares us for the next ones down the line and makes us better partners. Not every relationship is forever even though we want them to be; letting go can often be the hardest thing we ever do.

WHY RENT THIS: Jones and Samberg make an engaging non-couple. Cute in a quiet sort of way.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: At times feels like there’s nothing going on. Overloaded with indie cuteness to the point of distraction.
FAMILY VALUES: A bit of bad language, plenty of sexual content and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original title was Jesse Loves Celeste before it was decided that the focus of the film was going to be on Celeste.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Footage and a Q&A from the premiere, and also footage of Chris Pine, whose tiny role was cut from this film before he went on to star as Captain Kirk.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.1M on an $840K production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Break-Up
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Cinema of the Heart concludes!