For anyone familiar with Simon Amstell’s stand-up comedy, the subject of his debut feature film will come as no surprise. Much like his deeply personal 2017 show, ‘What is This?’, Benjamin toys with existential angst, self-fulfilment and relationship troubles.
The script is ready for Amstell to play the lead role. Instead, a comparably floppy-haired Colin Morgan (Merlin) is cast as Benjamin, a once promising filmmaker, who is on the brink of premiering his second film: a low-budget enterprise based on a previous failed relationship – oh, and it features a monk.
Hyper aware that it’s been seven years since the success of his first film, Benjamin is crippled with self-doubt (“ideally I’d have made that film and died”). He has lost clear sight of his creative vision, asking his indifferent producer: “What’s wrong with it? It’s not too funny? Would it be insane if we made it black and white?”
In what is often a very meta film, it’s easy to imagine Amstell asking himself the same question. But he also pokes fun at the filmmaking industry. From his dealings with a narcissist actor and PR agent, to his lacklustre preview at the London Film Festival, and subsequent disappointing review from Mark Kermode, Benjamin struggles to navigate his chosen profession.
But being the sort of person to make himself sick on Booja-Booja vegan ice cream and blame the smell on his cat, Benjamin seems to struggle with navigating life itself. However, an unlikely encounter with French music student Noah (Phénix Brossard), whose band is playing at a chair launch in a converted warehouse (of course!), may be just what Benjamin needs to set him going in the right direction. Brossard’s understated and tender performance provides softness to a film otherwise dominated by sharp characters.
Tongue-in-cheek, Amstell does a brilliant job presenting the artsy-fartsy side of London. There is a hilarious scene where a performance artist (Ellie Kendrick) showcases an abstract piece called ‘Womb’ in which she rolls around in a large reel of paper. David Pimm’s cinematography enhances this by painting the trendy version of London that is oh-so popular with millennials. A side-on shot following Benjamin as he runs down a street is in-keeping with the film’s indie style.
Yet, while satire pairs easily with social activism in Amstell’s iPlayer mockumentary Carnage, it feels muddled at times when combined with rom-com. Amstell’s purpose for Benjamin isn’t fully clear. The satire prevents the film from being a successful rom-com, and the ending feels too easy – a bit of a cop-out, in fact. The best rom-coms see their central character(s) develop, which we don’t really get in Benjamin. Ironically, it’s as if Amstell has tried to avoid Benjamin’s own heavy-handed approach to film-making, but in doing so has rendered his own film of little meaning.
Image credit: Movie DB