This is comedian Simon Amstell second feature film as writer and director, his first being the comic mockumentary Carnage made in 2017 in support of veganism.
He is not surprisingly himself a vegan, as indeed is the title character of Benjamin, who is inspired, says Amstell, “by my own painful attempts at love.” Set as it is in the world of show business and with Amstell’s alter ego being young film maker Benjamin (Colin Morgan) of the title, I was hoping for perhaps a charming, wistful romantic comedy with some sharp observations on the pitfalls of the “business that is show”.
However, as real life film critic Mark Kermode says in his cameo appearance here playing himself, this film is a disappointment.
Kermode in the film is talking about Benjamin’s second film, which we see being screened at the Curzon cinema as part of the London Film Festival – as indeed Benjamin itself was last autumn. As Amstell the director is doing here, Benjamin draws on his own life relentlessly for the film within a film. His inability to create a loving relationship with cute young musician Noah (Phénix Brossard). His obsession with the Buddhist philosophy that life is not real – videos of this crop up incessantly in both the film within the film and the film itself. And I wouldn’t mind betting Amstell, like Benjamin, has a pet cat! Amstell even puts a second alter ego into the mix in the form of Benjamin’s best friend, stand up comedian Stephen – a lively and sometimes touching performance by Joel Fry. Only Stephen, unlike Amstell, is not successful at this comedy lark, at one point embarrassingly so.
Morgan is a very talented and versatile young actor and he does his best as the inept hero of the piece, giving him a certain shy charm. But like most of the cast presumably in the service of “making it real”, he is encouraged to mumble, along with using his native Northern Ireland accent, which makes much of dialogue difficult to hear. It is possible there is more wit in the dialogue than I deciphered from the mumbling but I rather doubt it. The easiest scene to follow is when Benjamin meets Noah’s French parents and we have the benefit of subtitles.
Amstell has drawn together a good cast. As well as Morgan and Fry, there’s Jessica Raine making a strong impression as Benjamin’s pushy publicist Billie and Anna Chancellor has a cameo as Tessa, who at first appears to be his mother but I sort of gathered might be his producer. He has also found some great London locations in terms of clubs, art galleries and editing rooms and around the North and East London streets. But the film takes itself far too seriously. One of the few times we get a bit of a comic viewpoint on the media world is a scene where a young artist demonstrates her thing by wrapping herself in a roll of wallpaper.
It is overall a lost opportunity. Amstell can be a good comedy writer and with the talent he has at his disposal here and what is a rather good story idea, he could have made a much better and less self indulgent film had he stood back from his own life and cast a more objective and satirical eye on it, rather than using it for what comes over as mere confessional self therapy. As it is, it’s all a bit turgid and lacking in wit. I was just longing for the cat to have a bigger role. She looked far more interesting than poor, navel gazing Benjamin.