Any Questions for Ben?
Credits: Directed by Rob Sitch and starring Christian Clark, Tracy Mann, Lachy Hulme, Rob Carlton, Rachael Taylor, David James, Josh Lawson, Daniel Henshall, Felicity Ward, Jodi Gordon and Ed Kavalee.
Details: (M), 114 mins, In Cinemas 9 February 2012, Australia, English
Synopsis: For 27-year-old Ben (Josh Lawson), life couldn’t be better. A well paid job, friends, parties, girls and nothing to tie him down. But when he is invited back to his old school to join several other ex-students including Alex (Rachael Taylor) and Jim (Ed Kavalee) in talking about their personal achievements, something goes wrong. Ben is the only speaker not to be asked a question by the school kids. This triggers a year of soulsearching and looking for answers in all the wrong places.
No answers found in weak rom-com premise.
Near the end of Working Dog’s likable but oddly off-key new rom-com, there’s a very funny bit where the hero – twenty-something Ben (Josh Lawson) – is being ‘lectured’ in a nice way by one of his older-married pals, Sam. In desperation, Ben has come to Sam, a successful businessman. As played by Lachy Hulme, Sam is a near pitch-perfect caricature of the ‘new macho’; he’s the kind of bloke who lives quite well without modesty or bad conscience. Sam hardly makes the best counsel for Ben as he’s got no time for Ben’s ennui; he tells him to look closely at himself… he’s got good looks (forget ‘Ben’, we’re talking about Josh Lawson), money, no dependents, lots of women and he’s still a couple of years off 30, plus he’s got a good career as a marketing consultant, specialising in strategic rebranding (a really nice gag that has the kind of genuine wit that the rest of the film lacks, but more on that later).
When he tells Ben his life is “f-ing great”, Sam’s lack of sentiment seems to have merit, and I, for one, started to think that young Ben, to quote a line from Working Dog’s classic film, The Castle, had, um, his “hand on it”.
Still, this is not a movie that aims to mock a twenty-something careerist for his shallow self-indulgence; if Working Dog wanted to do that they might have worked harder at making Ben’s life look less fun and his angst insubstantial. Rather, it’s a movie about a guy who has everything… except a capacity for commitment, a direction in life and a girl to love. In the great tradition of movie romance, here love completes a ‘straw man'.
What has sent Ben into his ego tail-spin is that while attending a school alumni career-night, none of the kids had any questions for him (hence the film’s awkward, off-putting title). The movie never allows the possibility that the kids might have found Ben’s over-confident and slick style a downer. Instead, Ben’s emotional dishonesty is alibied in the film as ‘insecurity’.
I don’t think the Working Dog team has a hard-heart for social satire, a la mid-career Woody Allen and Albert Brooks, and their TV roots show. The movie is full of funny and light gags, but it’s like listening to a stand-up who is risk averse – it’s all superficial jokes about digital dependency, 21st century twenty-something ‘rootlessness’ and parents who are completely useless at intimacy and don’t understand their kids’ well-paid jobs and say things like, “So what do you do again?”
Ben spends most of the movie trying to work out where his life has gone ‘wrong’ while acting out the man-about-town fantasy; all celeb waffle, partying and uncommitted sex. (Just repeat and rewind that in your head and you get the style of the movie: lengthy dialogue between plodding high-speed montages of Melbourne high spots – this stuff looks like the movie has trapped the cast in a tourist commercial.)
Throwing Ben’s ‘problems’ into focus is Alex (Rachael Taylor), an old pal from their uni days who turns out to be an idealised, unattainable (or at least rather difficult to get) gal who teaches the hero a thing or three about life and true love. Alex is quite something; model good looks (though, director Rob Sitch and co. dag her up a bit here), wholesome, strong, decent, mischievous, and a high achiever. Ben is both mortified and beguiled at the high-school careers night, when, sharing the stage with Alex, another alumni, she starts talking about her UN gig in Yemen, and becomes the star of the ‘show’.
And this is where the script by Rob Sitch, Santo Cilauro and Tom Gleisner hit a couple of trouble spots: Is Ben envious of what Alex represents? (Is the guy that shallow that he needs the approbation of an audience of teens?) Or is he genuinely impressed? They keep the answers vague. In a ‘30s screwball romance, the Alex character would have knocked the ego right out of Ben; in that tradition, the lovers gave each other a sentimental education. Here, Alex and Ben never really bash about their issues; they just get huffy, or sulky, or cool-off when the going gets tough. Worse still is Working Dog’s goading, rather sincere sensibility; beneath their famously light touch, the film is a lecture on family values as an index for a fulfilling and rich life.
In other words, Ben, aged 28, is given all the life problems of a middle-aged man, but without the character to have some sense of perspective. Whatever happened to a life of endless possibility, fluid identity and a rich domestic lifestyle that doesn’t look like something out of the ‘60s?
Of course, this cranky review may imply that I expected or desired Any Questions for Ben? to be more than a bit of fluff, but it seems to me a film with ambitions to say something – about Gen-Xers, how and why we love, and the nature of men and women today. Or to put it another way, it’s full of the kind of fake insights and sanctimonious crap to be found in magazine self-help columns. Pity, because that’s a real fun killer.
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