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?