A Piercing Rom-Com About a Very Prickly Man’s Search for Love
DIRECTED BY SIMON AMSTELL/2018
DVD STREET DATE: AUGUST 25, 2020/KINO LORBER
Simon Amstell is an English writer, comedian, and film director who presents as anxious, awkward, depressive, and simultaneously self deprecating and ego-driven. If you believe his own material, he lives in a chronic existential crisis. Benjamin was his second feature film, about an anxious, awkward, depressive, self deprecating, ego driven film director trying to finish his second film while undergoing an existential crisis. It’s more than a little meta, and the fact that the film’s stand-in for Simon creates films rooted in his own life and relationships makes Benjamin the cinematic equivalent of a painting of a painting of a painting. But I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s a slight film – in both time and tone – but it’s very funny, with razor sharp wit and a scathing view of the struggling artist class – and it’s anchored by a strange, delightful performance by Colin Morgan (Merlin) as Benjamin.
I’ve watched some Simon Amstell standup comedy and while he jokes about being awkward and intimacy-averse, Benjamin takes that to another level. He stumbles through every conversation, every sentence, in fact; doubling back to try to find the appropriate response that he surely must have bypassed. When he does get a sentence out, it’s often unwittingly cringe-inducing. Meeting a young singer and immediately being smitten with him, Benjamin makes absolute hash of their introductions. “You’re really good at singing. Congratulations,” he says. And, “Your French. That’s exciting. I liked Les Mis.” Later, when having dinner out with Noah’s parents, Benjamin sees his ex-boyfriend (the one his first film was about) and has the disastrously bad idea to invite him over to the table. Benjamin laughs at the wrong times, misses social cues, and says “the quiet part out loud” – as when he tells his publicist that the pressure of his first film doing so well means “Ideally I would have just made that film and died.” When he first sees Noah and is smitten with him, Benjamin tells his friends, “Do anything to make him want to be with me. I’m terribly lonely.” “Just tell him (Noah) exactly that,” the publicist, Billie, replies sarcastically. “That’ll work.”
One of the film’s funnier lines (there are many) comes when Noah asks Benjamin what his first film was about. “It’s about my inability to love,” Benjamin replies. “But I’m fine now, and we’re writing a musical about depression.” Of course, Benjamin isn’t fine. He’s terrified of physical touch aside of from sex (“You’re not allowed to touch me,” he tells his best friend, Stephen), and literally sleeps under sheets printed with cactuses. He is not incapable of love, though: he just doesn’t know what to do with it. A scene in which he tries to comfort his discouraged best friend while having absolutely no idea how, is both painful and touching. The solution to Benjamin’s problem, if it is a solution, seems to come a bit too quickly and neatly. But the road to that point is a pleasant one paved with wit and empathy for a world full of awkward, lonely people.