Any Questions for Ben seeks to solve the very conundrum pondered since the advent of cinema, if not art and human communication itself: what are handsome, wealthy, young men really supposed to do with their lives? Before Woody Allen awkwardly fretted over his well-paying jobs and unrealistically gorgeous sexual partners, and eons earlier than a recently dumped John Cusack could flick his coat collar up in the rain and walk away from his ex’s window, there must have been a caveman who thought there might be more to existence than just ‘hunting’, and wondered whether the female mate he had clubbed and dragged back to his cave was in fact ‘the one’.
It’s odd that the team at Working Dog – including director Rob Sitch, and his co-writers Santo Cilauro and Tom Gleisner – would make their first film in almost twelve years about such a tired cinematic trope. But even though Any Questions for Ben never really produces any unique answers to make it a revelatory rom-com, it has an easy, low-stakes charm, and is buoyed by its very talented cast of performers.
Josh Lawson – long deserving of a vehicle – stars as the eponymous Ben, a 27-year-old strategic brand manager whose sense of self is as vague as his job description. Any lingering doubts he might have about his lot in life are quietened by an impressive cash-flow and the parade of models into his bedroom each night. It’s only when Ben is invited to speak at his former school’s assembly as a seemingly high-achieving graduate that his concerns rise to the surface. Why are the students so interested in asking beautiful Yemen-based United Nations lawyer Alex (Rachael Taylor) about the ways in which she’s changing the world, but have no queries about his recent vodka rebranding exercise? Ben’s struggle to define his internal confusion as anything other than ‘weird’ means no one can quite diagnose his malaise; not his dad (Rob Carlton, an uncanny spitting image of Lawson Sr.), not his rough-around-the-edges mentor (Lachy Hulme), and not even his super supportive buddies (Felicity Ward, Christian Clark, and, considering the horrible acts he perpetrated in Snowtown, a surprisingly adorable Daniel Henshall). But this is no Shame-style spiral into depravity and despair. Ben’s quest is suitably subtle, and takes place over the course of one procrastination-heavy year. This is how identities dissolve; not with a bang, but with a whimper.
Lawson deserves much of the praise for making sympathetic a character who could be considered the poster child for ‘first world problems’ (feeling ‘weird’ about one’s life is hardly a priority in this age of Occupy-Whatever). The script and performances are appropriately low-key, and recall the fine dramedies from Jay and Mark Duplass, such as The Puffy Chair and Cyrus, as well as other low-budget mumblecore movies Hannah Takes the Stairs and Mutual Appreciation. Perhaps the production is a little too slick considering the understated nature of the material; giant chunks of the picture feel like music videos or wine ads, and the semi-recurring titles on the screen describing each character are mildly annoying. Perhaps this is Sitch and company’s attempt to extend themselves aesthetically after mastering minimalist comedy in their previous not-as-pretty features, The Castle and The Dish. Any Questions for Ben doesn’t deserve a place next to those two in the hallowed pantheon of Australian comedies, but it’s a sweet, unassuming and occasionally very funny film.
Any Questions for Ben is now showing in Australian cinemas.