The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

FIF­TEEN years af­ter The Cas­tle and 12 years af­ter The Dish, the Work­ing Dog team has come up with an­other Aus­tralian com­edy — this time a ro­man­tic one. And be­ing a Work­ing Dog pro­duc­tion, what sets it apart from other ro­man­tic come­dies? A cer­tain bold­ness, un­usual char­ac­ters, an off­beat plot, a whim­si­cal at­ti­tude to the fol­lies and fa­tu­ities of the world? Not at all.

Any Ques­tions for Ben?, di­rected by Rob Sitch (who wrote the screen­play with Santo Ci­lauro and Tom Gleis­ner), couldn’t be more con­ven­tional. It’s big, glossy and warm­hearted and presses all the stan­dard buttons. If it weren’t for all those he­li­copter shots of Melbourne’s sky­line we could be for­given for think­ing that Any Ques­tions for Ben? is the lat­est big-stu­dio crowd-pleaser from Hol­ly­wood, with, let’s say, Justin Tim­ber­lake and Jen­nifer Anis­ton.

None of this in­tended as crit­i­cism. I en­joyed it thor­oughly. As my com­pan­ion re­marked, it’s one of the few ro­man­tic come­dies that are gen­uinely funny and gen­uinely ro­man­tic. And it looks great: the screen seems to be con­stantly filled with close-ups of ex­u­ber­ant and beau­ti­ful fe­male faces, and the Work­ing Dog boys have gone to great trou­ble to find at­trac­tive lo­ca­tions around Melbourne, which couldn’t have been easy (no, I didn’t mean that, Melbourne be­ing one of my favourite cities and over­due for glam­orous pro­mo­tion af­ter the shabby treat­ment it re­ceived in On the Beach).

The screen­play has lots of good lines, and there’s a se­ri­ous mes­sage (I think) aimed at to­day’s gen­er­a­tion of young, com­mit­mentshy males. If any young com­mit­ment-shy male is read­ing this he should hurry along to see Sitch’s film with his girl­friend. I pre­dict it will do much for the in­sti­tu­tion of mar­riage as a union be­tween a man and a woman, and pos­si­bly for the other kind as well.

Ben (Josh Law­son) is a 27-year-old ad­ver­tis­ing whiz un­der­go­ing a midlife cri­sis. That may seem early for a midlife cri­sis, but Ben lives in the fast lane and suc­cess has al­ways come eas­ily. He’s start­ing a new job (his 10th in seven years, as a ti­tle points out) and mov­ing into a new apart­ment (his sev­enth in five years). How many girl­friends he’s had is not spec­i­fied. His long-stand­ing, on-again-off-again girl­friend Alex (Rachael Tay­lor) has more or less given up on him. Oth­er­wise Ben has it all: big money, suc­cess, ad­mir­ing friends in a world of par­ty­ing and fash­ion­able eater­ies.

When his firm spon­sors the Aus­tralian Open ten­nis cham­pi­onships Ben gets to meet a sexy Rus­sian ten­nis star, Kata­rina (Liliya May), whose apart­ment, with even more spec­tac­u­lar views than Ben’s, makes a fine set­ting for se­duc­tion. (Kata­rina loses her big match next morn­ing, drop­ping to 16th in the world ten­nis rank­ings; Ben is blamed.)

It takes Ben a lot longer than the au­di­ence to re­alise some­thing is miss­ing in his life. What can it be? His dad (Rob Carl­ton) sells car­a­vans and doesn’t much care for Ben’s ar­cane world of tar­get mar­ket­ing, brand am­bas­sadors and prod­uct repo­si­tion­ing. When his flat­mate Nick (Daniel Hen­shall) and their friend Emily (Felic­ity Ward) de­cide to get mar­ried and set­tle down, Ben doesn’t get it. Set­tle down? Ben can’t even bring him­self to send an email to Alex when she’s posted abroad. His plans for over­seas trips are con­stantly de­ferred.

The guy is a hope­less ditherer. In­vited to speak at a ca­reers night at his old school, he par­rots a lot of flim-flam. The other speak­ers are ea­gerly ques­tioned by the au­di­ence but not Ben. As he con­fesses to Nick and his friend Sam (Lachy Hulme): ‘‘ I feel I’m do­ing ev­ery­thing but achiev­ing noth­ing.’’

Law­son has a boy­ish face marked by good hu­mour and a touch of pug­nac­ity and makes a very like­able Ben. Tay­lor was in Red Dog and I must have seen her in Trans­form­ers; I’d say she’s as beau­ti­ful as any­one in movies, which makes you won­der why she’s put up with Ben for so long.

Of course the end­ing is never in doubt. But wait­ing for the in­evitable some­how makes it more sat­is­fy­ing when it comes. The sur­prise in this lovely com­edy is that it suc­ceeds so well with its pre­dictable plot and with­out re­sort to the crass, the crude, the ex­ces­sive. I don’t think any­one uses a four-let­ter word. And when Ben’s final words are spo­ken in Ara­bic (there’s a good rea­son, of course) we know we’re in spe­cial ter­ri­tory. Sitch comes down on the side of tra­di­tional fam­ily val­ues in a world marked by greed, moral empti­ness and ma­te­ri­al­ism. Come to think of it, he did much the same in The Cas­tle. SAFE House is a Hol­ly­wood ac­tion thriller shot mainly in South Africa and di­rected by Swedish film­maker Daniel Espinosa. I rec­om­mend it as an ex­cel­lent com­pan­ion piece for J. Edgar: both films shed light on the work­ings of US se­cu­rity agen­cies.

In Safe House, Den­zel Washington plays the fic­tional Tobin Frost, the most dan­ger­ous Amer­i­can traitor of the 21st cen­tury, a highly placed in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer who has ditched the CIA to sell clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion to the high­est bid­der (it’s hard to say who is treated more sym­pa­thet­i­cally; Frost the traitor or J. Edgar the pa­tri­otic law-en­forcer).

But like any char­ac­ter Washington plays, we can’t help lik­ing him. The only time I saw Washington play an all-out bad guy he was a drug dealer up against Rus­sell Crowe in Amer­i­can Gang­ster. At the start of Safe House he takes de­liv­ery of a file of se­crets from the Bri­tish spy agency MI6. Be­fore he can dis­pose of it he’s cap­tured by the CIA, taken to a safe house in Cape Town and placed in the pro­tec­tive cus­tody of in­ex­pe­ri­enced CIA re­cruit Matt We­ston (Ryan Reynolds).

Matt has spent the past sev­eral months mind­ing the safe house, sit­ting around with noth­ing much to do and long­ing for the kind of vi­o­lent ac­tion that Espinosa de­liv­ers in gen­er­ous mea­sure. One of the lessons of Safe House is that even the best safe house is never as safe as it seems. When the house is at­tacked by armed mer­ce­nar­ies Frost es­capes with Matt in pur­suit. The chase leads to a cou­ple of fine ac­tion se­quences, in­clud­ing one at a foot­ball sta­dium, and even­tu­ally to an­other safe house no safer than the first.

The screen­play (by David Guggen­heim) keeps us guess­ing for most of the film, if only by keep­ing us mildly con­fused. The ex­act time of day is shown at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals on screen, a de­vice of­ten used in films to sug­gest re­al­ism and au­then­tic­ity. Thus, when the may­hem kicks off at ‘‘ 1.53pm, Thurs­day’’, and at least two public as­sas­si­na­tions oc­cur in the first cou­ple of min­utes, I won­dered why it was that by ‘‘ 8.17am, Fri­day’’ we are caught up in a wild car chase which may or may not be the same car chase, with the same revving en­gines and squeal­ing brakes, that we first wit­nessed, ac­cord­ing to my notes, at ‘‘ 5.37am’’.

This be­ing a cyn­i­cal con­tem­po­rary thriller, it goes with­out say­ing that the higher-ups at CIA head­quar­ters in Lan­g­ley, Virginia, are no more to be trusted than the lower-or­der op­er­a­tives in Cape Town, or even the spies and criminals on the other side. Even so, I liked Vera Farmiga’s CIA branch chief, who is con­vinced that Matt, like Frost, has turned traitor. There’s a dis­tress­ing scene when Frost is water-boarded by his CIA in­ter­roga­tors, and Matt, look­ing on, rather naively in­quires, ‘‘ Is this le­gal?’’

That this form of tor­ture has been widely used by the US is not now dis­puted, but it is shock­ing to see it prac­tised so graph­i­cally in Safe House as if it were per­fectly rou­tine.

It gives the film an odd touch of dar­ing. It is also an­other rea­son for feel­ing sorry for Amer­ica’s most dan­ger­ous traitor.

J. Edgar Hoover would have drawn the line at this, surely.

Josh Law­son, Dan Hen­shall and Chris­tian Clark in Any Ques­tions for Ben?

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