Simon Amstell has a very unique brand of comedy. After his career of gently ribbing ridiculous musicians on Never Mind the Buzzcocks came to an end, he performed a number of critically acclaimed stand-up shows, focused around his intensely self-deprecating comic persona. It’s that particular element of Amstell’s personality that takes centre stage in Benjamin – his second feature, following BBC iPlayer mockumentary Carnage.
The director himself is not on screen, but Colin Morgan’s title character is a clear avatar for Amstell. Benjamin is a filmmaker who was lauded for his first movie and is now struggling with the enormous expectations on his shoulders ahead of the release of his new film – “it’s not too funny?”, he asks in an early panic. He’s also managing the early stages of a romance with French musician Noah (Phénix Brossard), which is constantly threatened by Benjamin’s anxieties, neuroses and crippling social shortcomings.
There’s no doubt that Benjamin is a very personal film from Amstell, and one that channels his unflinching on-stage honesty into his cinema work. Benjamin is a man with obvious talent, but it’s talent that he can’t see because his insecurities magnify the things he does wrong. Morgan portrays the Amstell surrogate with understated and revelatory wit, which comes as something of a surprise given his relatively underwhelming work to date. He clearly understands the character and makes the most of Amstell’s sharp script.
Much of that sharpness is turned towards the movie industry. The story progresses towards the world premiere of the movie within a movie at the London Film Festival – Benjamin also premiered at LFF – and the inside baseball comedy is very well-observed. In particular, a riotously mean cameo from BBC Radio Five Live film show hosts Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo as themselves is a highlight that brought the house down at the festival press screening.
The film does, however, stumble when it comes to the more emotional side of its storytelling. In the second half of the movie, the focus shifts away from Benjamin’s filmmaking and towards his personal fragility and relationship with the impressive Brossard. The navel-gazing sadness of the movie has a shelf life, and it runs out of steam far before the credits roll. Joel Fry does great work in an under-written turn as an unsuccessful stand-up comic and there is definitely more mileage in his character than the film realises.
But none of these shortcomings minimise the successes of Benjamin. At its best, Amstell’s sophomore feature is a witty concoction of acerbic art world satire – look out for a delightfully absurd scene set at the launch of a new, modern chair – and self-deprecating romantic comedy. Helped by Colin Morgan’s enjoyably sad central turn, this is a British comedy that knows when to bark and when to bite.
Dir: Simon Amstell
Scr: Simon Amstell
Cast: Colin Morgan, Phénix Brossard, Anna Chancellor, Joel Fry, Jessica Raine, Jack Rowan, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett
Prd: Alexandra Breede, Dominic Dromgoole, Louise Simpson
DOP: David Pimm
Music: James Righton
Run time: 85 mins
Benjamin is in UK cinemas from 15th March.