– Summary –
Director : Rob Sitch
Year Of Release : 2012
Principal Cast : Josh Lawson, Rachel Taylor, Daniel Henshall, Felicity Ward, Christian Clark, Lachy Hulme, Ed Kavalee, David James, Jodi Gordon, Rob Carlton, Tracy Mann, Alan Brough, Chantalle Raleigh, John Howard, Claudia Hruschka.
Approx Running Time : 114 Minutes
Synopsis: 27 year old high flyer Ben is forced to reassess his carefree, indulgent lifestyle after attending a school reunion where none of the students wanted to known more about his career. He also rekindles an interest in former female school friend Alex, who works as a lawyer for the United Nations, although his lack of commitment to anything creates more than a few problems for them both.
What we think : Warm-hearted romantic comedy is lite on depth but above average on humor. While the film flounders in the middle, and runs probably a good twenty minutes too long, the characters and scripting are often hilarious and sharp, even when the central character seems to simply be treading water throughout. Pop-song heavy and unambiguously Australian, Any Questions For Ben has a number of flaws which can be overlooked thanks to a winning performance by Josh Lawson.
I have questions on how this didn’t make more impact overseas.
If you’re a fan of Aussie comedy, then Any Questions For Ben will fit right into your sense of humor. If you’re not a fan of films such as The Dish and The Castle, both of which were also produced by Working Dog, then this film might not rattle your chain. Aussie comedy is an offshoot of a lot of British humor, although since our foundation in 1901 we’ve moved a fair way from the Mother Country in terms of what makes us laugh. Films such as Gettin’ Square and The Nugget, alongside more iniquitous laughs like Jimoen’s The Extra, for example, have become the touchstones with which we Australian’s identify much of our heritage. Trouble is, Aussie humor is often selective in its focus and invariably too mired in backwater self-referential in-jokes to become truly accepted by the broader cinematic community. That’s not to say we’re not adept at pop-culture success – we gave the world Crocodile Dundee, for which we’ve been apologizing ever since – but usually, our big screen comedies tend to be too culturally stringent to matter to most. This is my own opinion, of course. So when Any Questions For Ben popped up on the market, marking the end of a 12 year gap since the crew at Working Dog last graced our cinema screens with a film, I was more than hopeful it would become the cross-culture success The Dish had become, instead of the butchered-for-foreign-audiences experience of The Castle (a film, I might add, that remains perhaps the most quoted Aussie film of all time, at least here at home).
Ben (Josh Lawson) is a high flying 27-year old “brand manager”, who is hired by a local sporting company to re-brand an aging line of product. Ben’s a bit of a player, if you will – his relationships never last more than 3 months, he changes jobs and living arrangements usually within a year of starting, even though he’s able to afford the good things in life. As a playboy, he seems to have it all. Ben’s best friends, his roommate Andy (Christian Clark) and a soon-to-be-married Nick (Daniel Henshaw) spend their time engaging in extreme sports and attending gala events thanks to Ben’s social connections. Ben is invited to a school reunion evening at his alma mater, to give a talk to students seeking guidance into careers after education, only to bump into former classmate Alex (Rachel Taylor). Alex works for the United Nations as a lawyer in Yemen, dealing with the humanitarian crisis there. After giving his talk, none of the students want to ask Ben any questions regarding his career choices, something Ben finds hard to take. This makes him begin to reassess his life, and the way in which he lives it, although changing that life even in the face of a “quarter life crisis” seems harder than he imagines. While seeking counsel from his friends and family (including Sam, a coffee-shop owning self-involved family man, played by Lachy Hulme), Alex keeps appearing in Ben’s life, only to leave just as quickly, each time making Ben question what he truly wants out of his time in this world.
The age-old cinematic tropes of a playboy with commitment issues suddenly finding he needs to change his life is run through the wringer here, in Any Questions For Ben. Unlike his previous outings behind the camera, director Rob Sitch eschews his previous low-key approach in favor of a razzle-dazzle visual aesthetic, the cityscape of Melbourne and the lives of our key cast embedded within seemingly all shiny and un-scuffed. There’s a sense of Guy Ritchie about the opening twenty minutes, with freeze-frames and whip-pans accompanying the upbeat soundtrack and the bright sunshine of the city. Sitch isn’t as visually commanding as Ritchie, however, and about midway through the movie you realize that the happy-go-lucky framework of the opening has vanished, replaced instead with a bog-standard rom-com style that eventually drops the pacing down to a standstill. The script, written by Working Dog alumni and legendary Aussie comedians Santo Cilauro and Tom Gleisner, as well as Sitch himself, is funny enough in parts, sexy in others, but can’t quite manage to straddle the line between modern-cool and typically generic. There’s elements of other films within this one, as the life journey Ben goes on begins to resemble some kind of How To guide to getting over yourself, wrapped up in a weird, kooky kinda emulsion of romance and frustration.
The story isn’t original in most respects, nor is it even the best example of its type you’ll see, but the freshness Sitch brings to the genre is enough to just scrape this into the “good” category. The film doesn’t quite explore the real emotional core of Ben’s personal issues, such as exactly why he chooses to fail to commit (as opposed to failing to commit on one’s own), nor does it provide a real depth to the inexplicable attraction Ben has to Alex – it’s like she’s just an object for him to aspire to in many ways, and although that might sound a tad harsh for a film where Ben and Alex have a definite chemistry, the background to it just begs for increased development. Ben’s constant moping about his life post-school reunion is also a crucial weakness for the film. Ben never seems to grow or learn about himself, instead just settling back into his frivolous lifestyle with added guilt about not following up on contacting Alex or any of his other commitments. Had the film lost about twenty or thirty minutes in the middle somewhere, and tightened up at the end, Any Questions For Ben might have benefited somewhat.
The cast are pretty good in their roles, especially Lachy Hulme as the coarse coffee-shop owner Sam. Hulme owns every scene he’s in, his brash persona as Sam a real spark to the film – had he played a more prominent role, this might have been a more comedic film. Josh Lawson, who made a name for himself here on Who’s Line Is It Anyway clone Thank God You’re Here here in Australia, as well as local TV series Sea Patrol, is solid in the lead role of Ben, delivering the smooth lines and witty banter with his fellow cast with an assured sense of character. Rachel Taylor, best known to audiences as the brainy chick in the original Bay Transformers movie, as well as part of the ensemble of the Russian-based box-office bomb, The Darkest Hour, and the recent Aussie flick Red Dog, is gorgeous as Alex, giving her an inner strength and sense of purpose not to just be another romantic comedy floozy in search of a man to make her happy (because all women need a man, right…?) even if she’s underwritten somewhat. Local audiences will spot comedienne Felicity Ward playing the fiancee/wife of one of Ben’s mates, and she nails the part with skin-crawling awkwardness. She’s the only one who tells it to Ben like it is. Watch out for Aussie comedians and actors Ed Kavalee and Alan Brough in minor roles throughout the film, as well as John “I’m Not The Prime Minister” Howard as a straight-arrow priest.
Any Questions For Ben does at times feel like a missed opportunity, in as much as the questions Ben faces are not entirely unique solely to him, yet Sitch and Co barely scratch the surface of what men feel when they are faced with the time of their lives when they must chose between settling down or carrying on like children forever. Sure, on the surface the film is genial enough, and hits all the marks of any good romantic comedy, but you get the sense that there’s a lot of airbrushing behind the scenes to make it all work. A sweet-natured cast deliver solid performances, the direction and production value is high quality, but a dithering and lengthy running time and unfocused narrative arc end up diluting what could have been yet another classic from Working Dog.