'Benny & Jolene': Film Review

Verve Pictures
This isn’t Spinal Tap.

This whimsical Welsh rom-com about a young folk-rock duo has a certain juvenile charm but lacks sharp wit or dramatic weight.

LONDON – Young love is a bumpy road trip to a muddy rock festival in this microbudget British rom-com from first-time writer-director Jamie Adams. Benny & Jolene stars rising young Welsh actor Craig Roberts and English TV ingenue Charlotte Ritchie as an indie-folk duo struggling to resolve their unspoken sexual tensions as they hover on the cusp of pop fame. The melodies are sweet, but the screen chemistry is never quite in tune, while the comic tone hits too many false notes along the way.

Adams previously worked as an editor, with credits including BBC Television’s long-running sci-fi drama Doctor Who and the 2009 Russell Crowe thriller State of Play. His feature debut originally went out to festivals under a different title, Jolene: The Indie Folk Star Movie. It has been renamed Benny & Jolene for theatrical release, presumably to throw extra emphasis on Roberts, whose profile is growing both at home and abroad. After an award-winning big-screen debut in Submarine in 2010, the young Welshman has begun crossing over to bigger international features, scoring small roles in the current U.S. comedies Neighbors and 22 Jump Street.

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Benny & Jolene was shot in just five days, mostly in Wales. Adams cites the ultra-indie U.S. comedies of Joe Swanberg and the Duplass brothers as key inspirations. That may be so, but any mockumentary-style satire about a bickering rock band on the road inevitably invites parallels with Rob Reiner’s 1984 classic This Is Spinal Tap. Indeed, at least one scene feels like a direct homage, when the hapless music duo host a record store signing and nobody turns up.

As with Reiner’s immortal spoof rockumentary, Adams and his cast worked from a sketchy plot outline, improvising much of their dialogue. But it requires deft wit and a subtle ear to convincingly pull off such apparently natural comic chemistry, and too many scenes here miss the target, unraveling into rambling repetition and labored humor. Minor characters are too often depicted as clueless morons, notably Rosamund Hanson’s publicist Nadia, lazily resorting to crude caricature in place of genuinely amusing insight.

Also, anyone who has had even casual contact with the music industry will find the satirical observations jarringly clumsy. A photo shoot in a public park, where a sleazy photographer furtively tries to make Jolene strip naked, is plain stupid. A press conference in which a concert promoter announces the duo will play a headline show at a huge sports stadium, without consulting either band or management in advance, would simply never happen in a million years.

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Most damningly, the two leads have zero romantic spark. Judging by their stiff conversations and bungled sex scenes, these are not longtime friends and collaborators but awkward strangers who met for the first time shortly before filming began. Their budding love affair feels passionless, their nascent music career an inconsequential hobby. Nothing has the emotional weight to engage audience sympathy. A bizarre campfire showdown in which Benny vents his jealous rage with a four-letter rap is a real jump-the-shark moment from which the film never fully recovers.

Shot with a hand-held, freewheeling lightness of touch, Benny & Jolene can boast a few redeeming charms, from its mellifluous folk-pop soundtrack to its handsome Welsh mountain landscapes. The deadpan, baby-faced Roberts is also an endearing screen presence with a bright future. But he already feels too big a talent for this amateurish lo-fi mixtape of a movie.

Production company: Jolene Films

Cast: Craig Roberts, Charlotte Ritchie, Dolly Wells, Rosamund Hanson

Director: Jamie Adams

Screenwriter: Jamie Adams

Producer: Jamie Adams

Cinematographer: Ryan Owen

Editor: Jamie Adams

Music: Andy Lovegrove

Sales company: Verve Pictures

Rated 15 (U.K.), 88 minutes