Simon Amstell’s Benjamin is a romantic comedy about a young filmmaker whose second feature is about to première, and he’s nervous. Don’t be, says his producer (Anna Chancellor). ‘Some people,’ she expands comfortingly, ‘will like it and some people won’t be into it, but each and every one of them is going to die, aren’t they? Because we are all going to die.’ Fair point. If you can ever say there is any point. Amstell’s career has always been predicated on his own existential crises, but as I’m one of those who is quite into that, I rather loved this film, not that it matters. Does anything?
Amstell is the stand-up who has written and starred in a sitcom (Grandma’s House, terrific), made the mock-doc Carnage, and has also written a confessional memoir, Help. Here, Colin Morgan plays Benjamin, a fictionalised version of Simon it’s probably safe to assume. I think even if Benjamin were a strongman in the circus, you could safely assume it’s somehow a fictionalised version of Simon, as Simon’s subject is always himself. (I don’t say this critically. You could say the same of Tracey Emin, who is also brilliant.) So Benjamin is insecure, vulnerable, anxious and, of course, lonely. (He has a cat — always a sign.) Much rides on his second feature, No Self — ‘what is “I” supposed to be?’ — which, from the glimpses we catch, is partly a love story and partly just a Buddhist monk saying stuff. Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo (playing Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo) are seen reviewing No Self on their radio show. Mark is disappointed: ‘The pretentious monk has no place in this film at all. Why didn’t the producer say: “Less monk”?’ I properly laughed, not for the first time, and not for the last.
Benjamin lives in London, is pushed around by a bossy publicist (Jessica Raine) who makes him attend ‘the launch of a chair’, has a best friend who is a comic (Joel Fry) and then meets Noah (Phénix Brossard), a French music student who fronts a band. Benjamin introduces himself when Noah comes off stage and ties himself up in knots: ‘You’re really good at singing. Congratulations, you’re French. That’s exciting. I liked Les Mis.’ The two then embark on a relationship, but can Benjamin make it stick this time? Can he, will he, do intimacy? I can’t say I was on tenterhooks, but I did want to find out.
This does succumb to some romcom tropes. There’s no montage of falling in love in Paris, but there is one in Highgate Wood, for example. There is also a last-minute, Richard Curtis-ian dash. Plus, Benjamin lives in a photogenic Crouch End flat, whereas in reality a struggling filmmaker in his twenties would be hard pushed to afford some shithole in Walthamstow. But it does avoid the gay film tropes. No one has to come out. No one dies of Aids. No one is forced to be Julia Roberts’s best friend. They’re just regular people getting on with their lives.
And the script is mostly delicious in that early, neurotic Woody Allen kind of way before he went dreary and nuts. True, there are the occasional jarring moments, and the subplot concerning the comic doesn’t properly work, but it’s Amstell’s first feature, as writer and director, and this is, on the whole, tender, sweet and affecting, while Morgan is excellent at portraying a certain lost quality. So I’m one of those who’s quite into it, although why anyone would care about that, given we’re all going to be dead, I don’t know.
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