REVIEW: Simon Amstell’s ‘Benjamin’ is a Bittersweet Comedy about Creatives

Raid Randall looks at the new film by Never Mind the Buzzcocks‘ Simon Amstell. Benjamin (2018) is a bittersweet take on what it means to be in a creative profession in today’s world.

For those unfamiliar with Simon Amstell’s work, his new film Benjamin is the knot tying together the many threads of his talent. Having already been a stand-up comic, author, documentary filmmaker, and actor; writing and directing a fictional film is one of the only avenues of creativity Amstell has not taken, until now.

Benjamin, follows the titular character played by Colin Morgan (Merlin), a young, awkward, unwittingly funny, gay filmmaker, and an obvious yet sweet homage to Amstell himself. Benjamin treats his career and his romantic relationships in much the same way, simultaneously both chasing success and living in fear of it.

At the beginning of the film, he has the potential to achieve both of his goals – his new film is set to debut at a London Film Festival, and he meets Noah, a handsome French singer in an indie band. Caged in by feelings of doubt and insecurity however, Benjamin continually finds himself accidentally-on-purpose wrecking his own chances for happiness, a theme that Amstell brilliantly explores as a fault in the attitude of the creatively inclined.

At the core of the film is an examination of the creative person’s unconscious desire to self-sabotage, as well as what it means to be a creative professional in this generation.

For the first half of the film, Benjamin is in limbo between the emergence of his first and second film. With nothing to occupy his time until his new film comes out, Benjamin spends his days engaging in unhealthy behaviour like binging YouTube videos on ‘Happiness’ and ‘Success’, or eating junk food into the night.

The direction of his life and career seems to rely on benefiting from acquaintances’ suggestions that he attend certain parties or meet certain people. The implication of this is clear: Benjamin lacks stability or routine, and is consequently stuck in a cycle of self-doubt and self-pity until the emergence of his newest project.

This is where Noah enters the picture. To Benjamin, Noah is a talented, beautiful, exotic fantasy that will save him from his depression and anxiety. In reality, Noah is a young struggling artist as well, and though he likes Benjamin, cannot cure him of his troubles.

Their relationship is exemplified in a scene where Benjamin meets Noah’s parents for the first time. Coincidentally, Benjamin’s ex-boyfriend is there at the restaurant as well, but has not seen him. Despite the obvious importance of the meeting, Benjamin is unable to prevent himself from ruining a good first impression by calling over his ex and hashing out their unpleasant breakup right in front of Noah’s mother and father. Afterwards, Noah asks Benjamin to talk to him, in the hopes of understanding why.

‘Benjamin: “I can’t.”

Noah: “You can’t what?”’

The answer is, of course, that Benjamin can’t open himself up.

The effect of the ‘creative’ industry on the mental health of young people is, and always has been, incredibly destructive. The irregularity of work, alongside the high expectation and resulting criticism all create a poisonous environment for people to survive in, let alone create in. 

To cope in such a world requires people to shut themselves down in order to avoid being permanently wounded and never able to create again. Out of fear of being hurt, ‘creatives’ barricade their real emotion behind gates of self-depreciation and humour, leaving them ultimately incapable of forming genuine connection.

In Amstell’s film, we see Benjamin trapped in this state of ‘unworthiness’, born of the success of his first film, ironically named Happy. The success of Happy, and the subsequent – though brief – joy it brought him was quickly extinguished by the pressure to follow up with something just as brilliant, or even better. At one point, Benjamin half-jokes that he would have ideally made Happy, then died, so that he never had to live up to it.

True happiness, both romantic and professional, sits uncomfortably beneath his skin, as he feels, deep down, that he does not deserve it. These feelings of inadequacy are then translated into physical awkwardness, and a sudden desire to ruin situations by ‘saying the wrong thing’. Only once Benjamin has destroyed his own happiness can he settle back into the place he is comfortable.

What should be remembered, when engaging with this film as a spectator, is that the character of Benjamin is a lens through which Simon Amstell views and analyses his own life. The subtle references to Simon are scattered throughout the film, such as the line “we’re alright aren’t we?”, spoken by Benjamin to his cat. In his 2012 stand-up comedy tour ‘Numb’, Simon confesses to the audience that he found himself asking this exact question to his own cat.

Other such small hints can be found within the script and cinematography if one knows where to look, and the resulting conclusion we draw is that whilst this film may not be autobiographical, there are strong similarities to the struggles Simon has faced as a freelancer in the creative industry. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that Simon is presenting us with an unreliable narrator.

Benjamin is Simon’s past self, too consumed with his own successes and failures to truly see those around him. The other characters of the film seem largely two-dimensional as a consequence of Benjamin’s lack of outside awareness. Callous, image-obsessed Billie is a parody of the ‘wannabe’ independent working woman, feigning interest in her clients and using insecure men for sex. Her famous boyfriend Harry readily tells Benjamin that he only slept with him as an ‘experiment’, and is as self-obsessed as actors are stereotyped to be. Even Noah is impossibly talented, handsome, and seems to know exactly what he wants.

These people are not real in the same way Benjamin is. Throughout the film, we watch Benjamin reacting to those around him rather than interacting with them. Everyone else makes confident decisions, and he just goes along with them. In reality, the self-assured demeanour Benjamin imagines everyone else possesses is non-existent.

Through the medium of his protagonist, Simon Amstell relays the message that it is too easy to convince yourself that you are not responsible for your own actions, and that everyone around you is in control whilst you are floundering.

Having lost everything due to his own unconscious need to self-sabotage, Benjamin is shocked into coming to terms with his own selfish behaviour by the belief that his closest friend might have committed suicide, bereft of Benjamin’s support When it turns out to be a false alarm, Benjamin understands that he has needlessly ruined his relationship with Noah out of a fear of being happy, and that he must make amends. As he watches the object of his desire perform, the quality of the sound changes; Noah’s voice is not as polished, and the echo transforms the song into something one might reasonably expect in some small basement somewhere.

Benjamin is confronted, at last, by the truth – that Noah, just like him, is a talented, but flawed ‘creative’ battling for success. His understanding of Noah as an imperfect being represents his ability to break out of this self-depreciating cycle at last. The film ends with a hopeful conclusion, that the two can continue to make their art, likely with little success, but together.

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