Simon Amstell’s second feature is a solidly entertaining if never quite substantial cringefest.
Note: this review originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
Disclaimer: this review was made possible thanks to a screener provided by the film’s UK distributor, Signature Entertainment.
Benjamin, a romantic dramedy and the second feature (although first to be theatrically-distributed) by acclaimed cult British comedian Simon Amstell, is about the titular struggling writer-director (Colin Morgan) attempting quite poorly to finish his second feature film, a romantic dramedy about a man seemingly incapable of love which keeps being interrupted by didactically relayed pretentious twaddle about the Buddhist concept of the self, whilst being closer to 40 than he’s comfortable with and utterly flummoxed at attempting a healthy relationship with the much younger French exchange student musician, Noah (Phénix Brossard), he’s become infatuated with. And you are forgiven if you didn’t make it to the second half of that synopsis because you read the part about Benjamin being a struggling writer-director trying to finish his second film and found your eyes involuntarily rolling out of their sockets. Nor are your fears likely allayed when I mention that Amstell’s film uses Benjamin’s film as a self-deprecating defensive shield for his own underbaked explorations of those same themes throughout Benjamin and that doing so is not anywhere near as clever as he might think it is.
Fortunately, even with all that said, the worst-case scenario of that premise is thankfully somewhat of a fake-out. Benjamin’s disastrous premiere is over and done with by the halfway mark and even before then only sparingly takes up the film’s time. Much like how Amstell’s somewhat underrated sitcom Grandma’s House took inspiration from where he was at that point in life as a jumping off point for character-centric thematic explorations that are more general than first appear, Benjamin, whilst never fully getting shot of the Woody Allen-esque navelgazing and existentialism, quickly reveals itself to be a painful character study of a deeply neurotic man with a relentless self-destructive streak born of raging insecurity and barely-restrained self-loathing who may also fetishize his own sadness. He knows that the monk shouldn’t be in his movie yet keeps it in regardless and watches it tank the whole thing. He is so utterly incapable of flirting that his first conversation with Noah devolves into repeating the word “dumplings” to double-digit degrees. In a pivotal later scene, he just cannot seem to resist courting the attention of his ex whilst at a celebratory dinner with Noah and their parents; not even out of maliciousness, he genuinely tries to hold an extended conversation with the man whose heart he broke and pain he funnelled into his acclaimed debut feature years ago just because.
It is, unsurprisingly, painful to watch albeit in a very Sam Bain & Jesse Armstrong kind of way. As somebody who is similarly neuroses-riddled and innately awkward, I found much of Amstell’s scenes dedicated to these exchanges (although the term “exchanges” misrepresents how one-sided they often are) to be just the right mix of accurately relatable and having my “OH GOD ABORT” survival instincts kick in in an effort to get me as far away from the situation as possible even though it wasn’t a real experience I was having. That’s an extremely thin line to walk, particularly since getting it wrong can also lead to the viewer losing patience with the protagonist causing all of this cringe for entirely the wrong reasons, but Amstell’s wit is sharp enough to pepper in actually funny jokes which cut all the deeper thanks to the relentless stammering. Morgan for his part makes for a compulsively watchable lead and his performance finds a semi-tragic neediness which moves Benjamin into being his own character rather than Not-Amstell. Whilst Amstell and editor Robin Peters have the film move with genuine zip, akin to that shown in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird and Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart, which means that, no matter how unbearable it may be in the moment, Benjamin never gets bogged down in the awkwardness for its own sake.
Benjamin nailing Benjamin, plus his sweet relationship with Noah – even if the ending is a little too optimistic, at least to me, given just how cyclical Benjamin’s self-destructive behaviour is shown to be – does come at the cost of underserving the rest of Amstell’s screenplay, however. What should be his most poignant thematic thread, about being a creative approaching the end of your 30s with very little to show for it, ends up being unfairly underserved since, rather than meaningfully contrasting it with Benjamin’s modicum of (soon to be ditched) success, it’s mainly relegated to brief check-ins with Benjamin’s floundering and suicidally depressed stand-up comic friend Stephen (Joel Fry doing excellent work with what little he has). Admittedly, this is rather due to Benjamin being very self-centred and borderline anti-social so there is a narrative sense, but it causes later scenes between him and Stephen to fall flatter than intended given the heavy subject matter. This hyper-focus also comes at the expense of Billie (Jessica Raine), Amstell’s effort to write a complex not-intended-to-be-likeable female character but who instead is an inconsistently written and impossible to read irritation who adds little to the film – ditto Harry (Jack Rowan) a hyper-twat who was Benjamin’s co-lead in his new film but whose purpose in Benjamin never manages to make itself known.
Because of this, Benjamin doesn’t end up amounting to a whole lot when it wraps up after 85 brisk minutes. That commitment to such a specific character study above all else meaning that Amstell misses out on the deeper lasting resonance he’s clearly reaching for. But Benjamin is still a very solid and entertaining effort with an excellent lead turn by Colin Morgan and, crucially, the film doesn’t commit any of the sins which the film-within-the-film is charged with doing by a cameoing Mark Kermode which saves hacks like me from repurposing extracts for cheap burns. Worth a watch and a strong base for Amstell to work from in future projects.
Benjamin is available to rent or buy digitally now.
Callie Petch is unfuckable, unlovable, unlistenable, unwatchable.