Any Questions for Ben?: Film Review

A shiny Australian rom-com that’s lamentably hollow at its core

Australian forays into the rom-com genre are rare, and there are chuckles along the way despite the lack of propulsive narrative.

 

Fizzy badinage keeps this slick but overlong Australian rom-com trucking along for a good while before it gets sucked into the vortex of its lead character’s inaction. Inertia takes hold in the second act as the rather lacklustre Ben (Josh Lawson), a successful 27-year-old marketing exec having a quarter-life crisis, gets lost in an existential tailspin.

Australian forays into this genre are rare, and there are chuckles along the way despite the lack of propulsive narrative. Working Dog, the production company behind one of Down Under’s most beloved comedies, 1997’s The Castle, will likely draw a sizeable domestic crowd looking for light entertainment with a local flavour. Overseas prospects are less promising, although they may be helped along by the growing profiles of the two U.S.-based Aussie leads, Lawson (House of Lies) and Rachael Taylor (Transformers.)

Kinetic early scenes establish Ben’s life in inner-city Melbourne as a sophisticated whirl of glamorous parties, casual sex and primary-colored furniture. With a high-paying job, supportive friends and a never-ending stream of gorgeous girlfriends and hipster apartments, he seems to have it all.

But director Rob Sitch, together with screenwriters Santo Cilauro and Tom Gleisner, have a point to make about a commitment-free generation whose lives are full but not fulfilling.

“If anyone can take a clapped-out product from yesteryear and sell it to 20-year-old metrosexuals, you can,” someone tells him at one point with a clap on the back. Ben senses this is kind of a vacuous raison d’etre, a suspicion borne out when he is invited to speak at his former school about his job.

His bad luck he follows an impassioned speech by fellow alum Alex (Rachael Taylor), a human-rights lawyer now working in Yemen. The schoolkids are left unimpressed by Ben’s faltering description of his career choice and when the headmaster (an amusing cameo by director Sitch) puts forward the query of the title, they fall thuddingly silent.

Cue a year-long bout of soul-searching, in which our protagonist seeks answers to the meaning of life from his father (Rob Carlton), his flashy, self-appointed mentor Sam (Lachy Hulme), and his roommates Andy (Christian Clark) and Nick (Snowtown’s Daniel Henshall.)

This soon becomes wearisome to an audience who saw the sparks fly early between Ben and the beautiful, intelligent, altruistic Alex (who, it must be said, is way out of his league in any universe but the self-serving realm of romantic comedy.)

The film takes a long time to reach its inevitable conclusion, taking scenic detours to the ski slopes of New Zealand, the rooftop bars and alleyway cafes of Melbourne, the Australian Open tennis and trackside at the horse races. Melbourne looks cool and enticing, but cinematographer Stefan Duscio’s frequent use of helicopter shots keeps its beauty at a distance. Musical montages abound, drawing on a busy soundtrack of songs that were popular in Australia about three years ago, and the filmmakers resort to a number of lazy clichés of the staring-pensively-into-the-middle-distance variety.

Special mention must be made of Felicity Ward’s tart-tongued but likeable performance as Nick’s partner Emily. Lawson’s glib reactions to just about everything become perilously one-note, while a charismatic Rachael Taylor proves once again the camera simply adores her.

 

Opens: Australia, February 9
Production company: Working Dog Productions
Cast: Josh Lawson, Rachael Taylor, Daniel Henshall, Felicity Ward, Lachy Hulme, Christian Clark
Director: Rob Sitch
Screenwriters: Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, Rob Sitch
Producers: Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, Michael Hirsh, Rob Sitch
Director of photography: Stefan Duscio
Production designer: James Clark
Costume designer: Sandi Cichello
Music: James Sidebottom, Jane Kennedy
Editors: Phil Simon, Stu Morley
Sales: Working Dog
Not rated, 114 minutes

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