Friday, October 7, 2022

Simon Amstell Charms with Semiautobiographical Love Story Benjamin

(Simon Amstell, 2020, UK, 85 minutes) 

Loose and charming, standup comic-turned-director Simon Amstell's second film, after 2017 mockumentary Carnage, revolves around a character much like himself, a gay London director making a film about a gay London director (Amstell also served as host of BBC quiz show Never Mind the Buzzcocks). 

Though Benjamin's first film met with a positive response, he's been struggling with his second. Instead of another romantic comedy, he's decided to make something more ruminative. 

In the midst of the struggle, his exasperated publicist, Billie (Jessica Raine, Call the Midwife), offers a diversion by inviting him to a launch party for a chair. The minute he catches a glimpse of Noah (Phénix Brossard, Little Joe), French singer of the band hired for the event, he finds himself smitten.

Their first meeting is awkward as Benjamin (Irish actor Colin Morgan, Merlin) says whatever pops into his head, but the easygoing Noah doesn't seem to mind. When he asks what Benjamin has been working on, the director describes his latest project as a film about his "inability to love"--an autobiographical feature, in other words. 

Noah invites himself to Benjamin's oddly-shaped apartment, ostensibly to watch his first film, but a romance soon ensues (the apartment includes a fluffy tabby who appears to talk to Benjamin when he's at his lowest ebb). The next day, they eat porridge and trip on magic mushrooms. 

At the premiere of Benjamin's new film, the audience reaction is less than enthusiastic. He's crestfallen, if unsurprised. Noah, who is preparing to graduate from music school, says he likes it, but he chooses that particular moment to let Benjamin know that he isn't ready for a relationship. 

Casting about for a new project, Benjamin agrees to work on a script with Harry Barridge (Jack Rowan), the handsome, if vapid star of his film, but nothing productive comes from it. 

His love life, however, improves when he and Noah agree to try again, but after a disastrous dinner with Noah's parents when he runs into caustic old flame Paul (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), the relationship founders again. Benjamin also worries about his friend, Stephen (Joel Fry, Game of Thrones), a standup who spirals into depression after a cringe-inducing gig. 

Amstell's film, which feels like the setup for a sequel, ends before Benjamin has decided on his next career move, but his personal life finally appears to be coming together. At its worst, the director's sophomore effort feels slight, but the laughs flow easily though deft dialogue and Morgan's crack timing, and Amstell dodges most of the clichés associated with the gay rom-com, like over-the-top gal pals and cartoonishly clueless parents. I enjoyed it.

Benjamin is available through Kino Lorber and free streaming through Plex and Tubi. Images from Channel 4 (Colin Morgan and Phénix Brossard), Film Cred (Jessica Raine, Morgan, Joel Fry), and Zeke Film (Morgan and cat).  

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