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Any Questions for Ben? movie review: none for Ben, plenty for Working Dog

While growing up every person has at least one interminably uncool relative. The daggy uncle duded up in chest-high jeans. The aunty who distributes socks and hankies every year for Christmas. The father who sneaks in the occasional cheeky shandy.

There are few things more transparently uncool, more kill-me-now-or-we’ll-all-die-from-embarrassment, then a perennial dag pretending they’re still trendy, still in tune with the yoof of today — as if the word “discotheque” never went out of fashion and they never snapped up that Michael Buble CD.

Imagine if that relative were handed a few million dollars to write and direct a romantic comedy about hip young people falling in love, in a plight to prove they’re still ‘connected’. Imagine the potentially ghastly consequences.

Now you have the vaguest glimmer of what it’s like to sit through Any Questions For Ben?, the third feature film from director Rob Sitch and beloved Australian production company Working Dog, who have made precisely that: a dog.

The blobs of writers’ block offal masquerading as a storyline concern 27-year-old Ben (Josh Lawson), a hot shot well-sexed advertising executive who arrives at the epiphany that his life is as vacuous as the film that bears his name. He likes short term relationships with long-legged women; quick stints in high paying jobs.

The dawn of realisation occurs when Ben is invited back to his old high school to speak alongside successful alumni such as savvy international aid worker Alex (Rachael Taylor). After an awkward, scattered speech about billboards and rebranding Ben is the only participant — gasp! — not be asked a question by the students.

He takes this personally; so personally it lands him in a quasi-existential who-am-I funk. Ben asks for advice and gets sub-par responses from his materialistic mentor Sam (Lachy Hulme) and mates Andy (Christian Clark) and Nick (Snowtown’s Daniel Henshall). What does he do to change his ways? He does what he’s always done: chases skirt, and an awkward to-and-fro romance between him and the up market Alex slowly comes to fruition.

The second act is supposed to be about how Ben looks for answers in the wrong places – by dating a tennis star, for example, and going on holiday to New Zealand – but essentially the screenplay (written by Sitch, Santo Cilauro and Tom Gleisner) doesn’t have one. With an almost complete absence of character trajectory, Ben reflects on his life, decides it ain’t right, but barely passes that initial point of realisation. Expect a feast of rom-com clichés, nary an original thought in sight, to fill out the plot: an unfulfilling desk job, a wedding, a visit to a popular sports event, drives in a fast car, an overseas vacation, an airport scene, a hot air balloon, a work Christmas party, a boat trip…

The implausible relationship between Ben and Alex is written and acted with cat strangling caricature, as bogusly applied as the too-bright lipstick decorating star Josh Lawson’s lips (The Dawson’s Creek syndrome). Alex is painted in bleeding obvious strokes as a dignified person worthy of our respect – she’s a member of the UN and she’s, like, met the Prime Minister and stuff – yet the script unceremoniously flings her around, presenting her as low hanging fruit for Ben to nibble on when the time is convenient while insultingly maintaining the illusion that her character amounts to more than that. There is no emotional connection between the two leads, and certainly no fizz between Lawson and Rachael Taylor, though both try their darndest to work the material.

Even the crucial set up scene — not a difficult one to pull off — badly misfires. When Ben talks on stage at the all important alumni event he blabbers and stammers, barely one coherent sentence emerging from his lipstick painted lips. Surprise surprise, nobody asks him a question. How much better that scene might have resonated if Ben had the gift of the gab, silkily verbose and sell-ice-to-eskimos convincing, feeding into his persona as a slick advertising man. And yet the kids still care not a jot, enforcing the idea that’s it’s Ben’s life that’s uninteresting rather than his public speaking abilities. That his existence, while shiny on the outside, is hollow at its core, which is supposedly what this mangled mess of film is all about.

Before a preview screening two weeks prior to its release, Rob Sitch addressed an enthusiastic crowd, describing the city of Melbourne as a key character. Remembering those comments after wallowing in the wreckage of Any Questions For Ben? provides a sobering reminder that Sitch – whose last feature was the pleasant-enough The Dish in 2000 – is not a practicing filmmaker and far from a natural hand at the medium.

Evoking a sense of place requires a great deal more than sweeping helicopter shots of the CBD and a choice of popular locations to film (in this case the Yarra River, the Sydney Myer Music Bowl, Rod Laver arena and others). Unassisted by editors Stuart Morley and Phil Simon, Sitch appears to have no idea how to play with spatial properties, to hold the frame, to allow locations to seep off the screen, to make a city a personality in itself. Cities portrayed in films like  Guys and Dolls (1955), Play Time (1967), Wake in Fright (1971), Collateral (2004) and The Lincoln Lawyer (2011) provide telling reminders that it’s a great deal easier to say these things than to achieve them.

Adding to the overarching feeling that pervades the production – that this graceless comedy has been made by middle-aged dags trying and failing to capture the mannerisms and lifestyles of people decades their junior – is a face-palm soundtrack stuffed to the gills with top 50 bubblegum pop tracks that used to be sort-of cool in mainstream circles three or four years ago. During virtually every moment of visual exposition, no matter how fleeting or inconsequential, Sitch cranks the songs up to ten, giving the film a throbbing brick-to-the-face rhythm that will inspire audio palettes not attuned to homogenized gunk want to bolt for the exit.

Even more painful than Stephan Elliott’s dire A Few Best Men, Any Questions for Ben? is a culture cringe clunker so awfully written and directed it challenges audiences to do the previously unthinkable: to reflect on Working Dog’s The Castle, a prize possession in the pool room of great Australian comedies, in the context of a brilliant fluke.

Any Question for Ben?’s Australian theatrical release date: February 9, 2012.

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  • 1
    paddy
    Posted January 30, 2012 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    ROTFL So tell us what you really thought of it Luke. :D
    Definitely the best ever Cinetology smack down yet.
    Sounds like one of those turkeys, where the reviews are *far* more entertaining than the film.

  • 2
    DaveF
    Posted January 30, 2012 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    Any questions for Ben? How about any questions for Working Dog? Heaps, but I’ll settle with, ‘What the hell were you thinking?’. Watching the 1:45 trailer was bad enough – how you endured the entire film Luke is admirable!

    I think Pinocchio is less wooden than Josh Lawson. Seriously!

    Agree with Paddy – reviewing the reviews could be way more entertaining than watching this dross. And I only watched the TRAILER.

    The review is a great bit of writing in sucking the reader in completely. I actually couldn’t wait to watch the trailer after reading – just so I could confirm for myself how bad it was. Luke, your description didn’t disappoint.

  • 3
    BlackIvory
    Posted January 30, 2012 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    “There are few things more transparently uncool, more kill-me-now-or-we’ll-all-die-from-embarrassment, then a perennial dag pretending they’re still trendy, still in tune with the yoof of today — as if the word “discotheque” never went out of fashion and they never snapped up that Michael Buble CD.”

    Ha ha. The advert for the upcoming series ‘Tricky Business’ popped into my mind upon reading this paragraph. IMO Shane Bourne fits this description to a tee…

  • 4
    paddy
    Posted January 30, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    OMG! Just watched the trailer. (Thanks DaveF) :D

    P.S. Reading the (current) single comment by “nicquer” on IMDB, shows that even the publicists on this turkey can’t write a decent script.

  • 5
    Rich Uncle Skeleton
    Posted January 30, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    I had my concerns back when I watched the trailer and couldn’t work out what the film was about. Lots of parties, blonde women, fast cars and “exotic” locales but nothing that actually told me what the story was (or wasn’t, as the case may be).

  • 6
    Bob the builder
    Posted January 30, 2012 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

    Yuck! From the trailer looked like an american film with Australian accents. It doesn’t have to have sheep and beer to be Australian, but everything about this seemed generic Hollywood.

  • 7
    Aliar Jones
    Posted January 30, 2012 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

    Please! these guys lost it completely, their dalliance with Channel 10 robbed them of their comic instincts (I’m old enough to remember when they were actually hilarious) and they blended into the vanilla soup of YOUF entertainment.

    Oh well, they still gave us Frontline..

  • 8
    Woody
    Posted January 31, 2012 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    Watching these guys’ evolution from the D-Gen to Working Dog they’ve become a case of becoming exactly what they used to mock. The “little man triumphs” theme of “The Castle” was never the case, and how people ever bought into it when actually seeing the film is beyond me. The little guy never stood a chance without the assistance of a retired QC! I’d imagine that publicist went on to a glorious career having spun that one!

  • 9
    Boyd Natalie
    Posted February 1, 2012 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    Luke are you kidding me? I have seen this along with quite a few others and we all had nothing but positive reviews.
    Its funny, well written and the soundtrack is fantastic! You must have bad taste in music if you label this soundtrack “Bubblegum”.

    Dave F just so you know I didnt rate the trailer either but the movie is much better.

    We should be proud of our Australian films and producers. They have done a great job on this one.
    Luke maybe you should stop being so stuffy and loosen up!

  • 10
    Moving to Paraguay
    Posted February 1, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    Beware. I lost a few point off my IQ by just watching that trailer. I can’t imagine what the full film would do.

  • 11
    Tanner Jack
    Posted February 2, 2012 at 1:04 am | Permalink

    What a terrible review this is. Having endured the woeful, cloying Descendents yesterday (which, by the way, is the world’s BEST example of middle aged men failing miserably to capture the mannerisms and speech of teenagers) and noting your positive review of that film, I was amazed to this poorly written tripe.

    Clearly, this is a case of a reviewer putting his own need to make a statement and hammer what he regards as middle aged dags (all of whom are infinitely more amusing and talented than he is) ahead of an objective review of the film itself. I can’t remember the last time I saw an Australian comedy that was actually funny. It is HARD to make people laugh and this film was full of amusing moments and pretty much everyone in the cinema I saw it in enjoyed it immensely.

    “A culture cringe clunker”? You are JOKING, right? This is one of the few Australian comedies that DOES NOT rely on some woeful broad-brush “Aussie battler beats evil corporation” formula and is set in a contemporary setting and not the outback.

    Yes, Ben’s character arc and realizations may not be the most illuminating in cinematic history, but what ON EARTH were you expecting out of what is essentially a rom-com?

    This review is why people hate reviewers and barely listen to them anymore. It is why bad films succeed and often good films do not. To even MENTION “A Few Best Men” by way of comparison is an utter disgrace.

    Rather than trolling for inane comments like “Definitely the best ever Cinetology smack down yet!” you should actually do your job and review – not exercise your meager talents writing sensationalist nonsense.

    You are the Andrew Bolt of film reviewers and I think that says it all.

  • 12
    Aliar Jones
    Posted February 2, 2012 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    You are the Andrew Bolt of film reviewers and I think that says it all.

    Hey Tanner Jack, what’s your job @ Working Dog? Chief Idiot?

  • 13
    Aliar Jones
    Posted February 2, 2012 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    but what ON EARTH were you expecting out of what is essentially a rom-com?

    Please go and watch 50/50

    Raise your bar which is obviously the very reason films like this are rightfully lambasted.

    Excusing them is simply adding to the shit situation the aussie film industry is in..

  • 14
    makip
    Posted February 2, 2012 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    I’m glad I stopped reading this review three paragraphs in yesterday. I watched the movie at a preview screening last night and you’ve given away so much of the plot and scenes it would have spoilt it. My wife and I both enjoyed the film and found many of your criticisms unwarranted.

    I agree with what you’ve said of the cinematography and I also found it wanting. It had variety and it looked impressive, I’ll give it that, but if their intention was to make you feel you were in Melbourne, well I don’t know it could almost be any modern city. And I’m from Melbourne.

    However I think your descriptions of youth cool and “failing to capture the mannerisms and lifestyles of people decades their junior” a rather painful and pointless criticism. Even if it’s true – and I didn’t find it was – I think youth mannerisms and habits are fleeting, what’s depicted is simply close enough, really it’s the message and the emotional connection of the characters that’s important.

    I’m 35 yrs of age, but I think the target demographic for the film is much broader. We both felt it avoided many cliches of Australian cinema by depicting as it’s protagonist a well-to-do young australian with a stable family life. He’s going through a crisis about meaning I’m sure many of us have or will experience.

    My mind keeps returning to scenes in the film.. a good sign that it will probably stay with me. I’d be happy to recommend it to friends. It’s not a big film in scope, and I don’t criticise the makers for that. It’s start was shaky with rapid edits and I wasn’t convinced by the lead character, not initially. But it improved, what a pleasant surprise to enjoy it so much.

  • 15
    Louise
    Posted February 2, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    I was fortunate enough to attend a preview last night and absolutely loved the film. I am so glad that I didn’t read this review first as I might not have made the trek across town to the Jam Factory. In essence, I’d give the film 8.5 out of ten for its thoughtful and funny discussion of a 27-year-old’s quarter-life crisis. I’d give the review 2 out of ten for its snide tone and cynical taking of cheap shots, when it’s so rare that an Australian film gets so much right.
    I’m in my late 30s but I went through something similar to the lead character when I was 27 years old. The film took me back to an earlier period in my life and helped make some sense of what I went through.
    I agree that it did start weakly – Josh Lawson’s acting and the rapid editing not helping matters and I started to fear that the follow-up to the Dish would be a major disappointment – but it found its feet after about the first 15 or so minutes. And from that point on, I was often moved to the point of tears and laughter.
    I’m glad that a film has been made that addresses this point in many of our lives: where the thrill of landing a job and pay-check after university starts to be questioned; the decisions that have to be made on whether a relationship should be cemented or there should instead be a search for unknown treasure; the different places that females and males can be in on these issues.
    They are First World Problems, and it’s easy to be cynical about them, given the film depicts an obviously privileged milieu which is not generally comfortable territory for Australian cinema. But I welcome so much this film’s exploration of these difficult issues. Strangely, and slightly embarrassingly enough, I feel proud that a film this great has come out of my home town.

  • 16
    drovers cat
    Posted February 3, 2012 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    Agreed: terrible, though not much worse than the average rom-com being made just about anywhere.
    But sadly, it may also reflect the complete and utter self-centred shallowness of many actual twenty-something characters, male and female, in today’s post-modern Australia.
    Maybe Rob Sitch was just taking the pi*s … he’s always been good at that

  • 17
    Russell
    Posted February 3, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    To Bob the Builder, and some of the other smart people who have made their minds based on a trailer… You obviously have not seen any American rom-coms lately. AQFB has no “jokes” about sh-tting (Bridesmaids), masturbation (every one of the genre I have seen since 1990), unbelievably crude dialogue (ditto), women who are just gaggin’ for it (all), retarded male buddies who also can’t have sex or go to the toilet properly (ditto again) and then talk about both inadequacies incessantly, or Apple products.

    AQFB (which I have seen) is actually pretty good – warm funny and witty. It’s not for inner city Crikey types like Lukey boy here, they have Lars von Trier.

  • 18
    shitesherlock
    Posted February 3, 2012 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    I dunno. I saw the trailer. I’ve read this review. I’ll probably go see it. I personally feel that Australia *should* make more films like this. You know, the light-hearted romcoms or whatever you want to call it. I think that there’s an element of cultural cringe about (a) doing something that we’re not so good at doing, ie this genre, and (b) copying a method that is stock standard, bread and butter formula Hollywood. Maybe this is not ‘quirky’ Oz enough for some people.

    PS: Luke, this article needs another going over by your subs.

  • 19
    paddy
    Posted February 3, 2012 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    With all the fluff being spread around about this movie, I’m a bit puzzled reading raves elsewhere on the net, stating it’s had a record opening weekend at the box office.
    This article has its release date as Feb 9.
    What am I missing here?

  • 20
    monkeyboy66
    Posted February 4, 2012 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    So far the comments have given me the most laughs.

    If Nick went all Snowtown midway through the film it might be worth watching.

    Not my sort of film, something the missus might watch. Looks like an extended episode of Packed to the Rafters.

  • 21
    monkeyboy66
    Posted February 4, 2012 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    Disclaimer – I’ve never watched an episode of Packed to the Rafters. The trailers for both are uncannily similar.

    Looking at the promo shot on the top of the page that Jodie certainly has some teeth! Imagine she has quite the over-bite.

  • 22
    David Hunter
    Posted February 4, 2012 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    Last night we saw Any Questions For Ben and found it thoroughly enjoyable – smart, funny and entertaining. I actually walked away with a sense of pride that Australia has produced a movie to match the best of Working Title and the vast majority of US comedies.

    Arriving home to search for Reviews and OMG, there is the most nasty, self-serving piece of vitriol I could imagine. I wanted to punch Luke Buckmaster in his ugly snout, but instead took out this Crikey subscription.

    I challenge the Editors to seek a second Review this week if consensus among media Critic Reviews is positive for AQFB. Otherwise that Crikey Mission Statement is bogus.

  • 23
    PaoloConte
    Posted February 4, 2012 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    TANNER JACK posted: “A culture cringe clunker”? You are JOKING, right? This is one of the few Australian comedies that DOES NOT rely on some woeful broad-brush “Aussie battler beats evil corporation” formula and is set in a contemporary setting and not the outback.

    OK, look I know that I’m being a pedant and probably a right PITA as well, but I can’t let this pass.

    I think that you have misunderstood the meaning of the phrase “cultural cringe”, Tanner Jack.

    “Cultural cringe” refers to thinking that our own cultural product is not good enough, doffing the cap and being embarrassed about it and trying to emulate foreign product or in this context trying to make a Hollywood movie rather than tell a distinctively homegrown story, ie. exactly what it would appear this movie has done. I really don’t get why you equate cultural cringe with films with outback or broad-brush “little-Aussie-battler” themes (however hackneyed or Oz-on-steroids they may be, they’re not an example of cultural cringe). Cultural cringe is making movies which DON’T have evidence of any distinctively Australian setting or themes and could have been made anywhere, not movies which DO emphasise local elements. You seem to think that “cultural cringe” refers to that kitsch sort of “so-bad-it’s funny, so-Strine-it’s embarrassing” Muriels Wedding kind of schtick.

  • 24
    AR
    Posted February 5, 2012 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

    Given the vapid Eltham piece & this Lukewarm waffle, I was glad to read the various comments of people who’d akshally seen the flick. Having onyl dial-up I can’t watch the enbedded trailer and had intended to check it out at the library next week. So thanks to those who thought that the film had some merit but i shall wait for TV.

  • 25
    Tanner Jack
    Posted February 6, 2012 at 12:12 am | Permalink

    No, “PauloCentre”, you are a not a pedant, you are just clueless.

    Cultural cringe simply refers to a feeling of cultural inferiority. It is in no way is confined to the meaning “making Hollywood movies”. In fact, it is pretty much the complete opposite of this – we should have the confidence to make movies on ANY topic without fear that this genre is somehow already owned and perfected by the Americans or whoever else. There is nothing especially American about this film – unless you define American as “lacking in pathetic cultural stereotypes that barely exist outside major Australian cities”. You think Australia is lacking in urban yuppies? You think Australia has no superficial advertising executives? You think we only have ockers who call people Galahs and shop at Fountain Gates?

    How about you go and see the film yourself so you can understand why this vitriolic review is a minority opinion.

  • 26
    Trumbull Toni
    Posted February 10, 2012 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    Oh lord this was SUCH a disappointing movie. Ben’s character was the worst. He could barely finish a sentence in the whole film and just tried to be funny in every situation (and failed). He was in no way charming at any time and for the life of me I have no idea what Alex saw in him! She just ended up quite pathetic how she not only beckoned to his every call but actually chased him in the beginning. And it wasn’t only Alex, every woman that he came across dropped their pants at the site of him for some reason. It didn’t make any sense!

    Also, is he supposed to be a hero in the end because he got on a plane to Yemen!? Oh and that whole speaking broken Arabic to ask her to be his “girlfriend”… remind anyone of ah, Love Actually! Grrr, he was such a weak character it made it so frustrating that I almost walked out.

    I will admit the support roles were quite good and I am not having a go at Josh Lawson’s acting but rather the writing and direction. Oh and I thought the soundtrack was terrific. I will be buying it.

  • 27
    Mezzatesta Enrico
    Posted February 18, 2012 at 11:37 pm | Permalink

    @ TANNERJACK

    “How about you go and see the film yourself so you can understand why this vitriolic review is a minority opinion”.

    Since when is the minority opinion 3/4 of movie review sites ???

  • 28
    Mugdug SJ
    Posted February 21, 2012 at 12:09 am | Permalink

    I wanted to punch this film in the face.

2 Trackbacks

  1. By Reviews Wrap | AFI blog on March 29, 2012 at 11:17 am

    ...] stark contrast, Crikey’s Luke Buckmaster is scathing of the film, failing to see any effective comedy or any chemistry [...

  2. ...] been an awful year for Sitch, the poor bastard suffering reputation damage inflicted by directing Any Questions For Ben? and now this. In a silly wig he dances to Wake Me Up Before You Go Go, and when Glenn Robins shoves [...

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