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Melbourne's Gen Y hollowman

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Any Questions For Ben? (M) Director: Rob Sitch. Starring: Josh Lawson, Rachael Taylor, Daniel Henshall, Felicity Ward, Christian Clark, Rob Carlton, Lachy Hulme. 114 minutes

'Never mistake motion for action.' Hemingway's phrase appears as an epigraph to Any Questions For Ben?, the new Australian comedy from the veteran Working Dog creative team (The Castle), and reverberates throughout; an existential countermelody to the film's innocuous soft rock soundtrack.

Where 'action' connotes achievement, 'motion' merely implies activity. Ben's (Lawson) life is nothing if not active. He is a well paid marketing strategist, with a knack for reinvigorating tired brands. His social and sex lives are exuberant. He's forever looking towards the next item on his unending recreational to-do list. Quite simply, Ben is constantly in motion: when we meet him he's onto but his latest girlfriend, his latest job, his latest apartment in a long line. Not bad for a 27-year-old.

But for Ben this is a glamorous yet vacuous existence. This point is driven home when he attends a careers evening at his former high school. He is upstaged by a fellow student, Alex (Taylor), who is nothing less than a human rights lawyer working for the UN. So sharply does Ben feel the contrast between her achievements and his (it's hard to compare selling socks and vodka with saving the lives of women and children in Yemen) that he begins to question whether his life has any meaning at all.

He turns to various confidantes for assistance. His dad (Carlton) means well, but is not really into all that self-examination stuff. His roommate Andy (Clark) is too easily distracted by TVs and other shiny objects that enter his field of vision. Ben's best friend Nick (Henshall) is contemplating marriage to his longtime girlfriend Emily (Ward), a path that Ben can't even begin to contemplate at his relatively tender age. As Ben's search for answers meets endless dead ends, his crisis deepens.

Tales of alienation and angst within materially obsessed societies are hardly a new phenomenon. What distinguishes Any Questions For Ben? is that it explores that particularly Gen Y phenomenon of the 'quarter life crisis'; the epiphany (justified or otherwise) that, despite a dedication to 'experience' and 'connection', one's life is hollow. In this, it is very much a film for its time: one of the signifiers of Ben's crisis is that he doesn't own any physical photos, only digital ones stored in his phone.

This leaves the film open to the criticism that it is a case of grumpy older men and women griping about the silly lives of young people. But that would sell the film short. While Any Questions For Ben? may not have the affection for its characters that, say, The Castle did, Lawson is likeable as Ben, and there is enough warmth and humour among the ensemble of supporting characters (Hulme as Ben's vainglorious mentor Sam is a comedic highlight) to ensure the film earns its feelgood stripes.

Ben's smart and fast world is evoked by the film's lively urban locales and sharp dialogue. Sitch and co. have not lost the deft touch they have honed over decades of brilliant comedy writing (the terrific political satire Hollowmen recently demonstrated that they are still as sharp as they were when they did Frontline 20 years ago). Each perfectly polished gag passes your ears so quickly that you are already bracing for the next one before you've finished laughing at the last one.

The themes of Any Questions For Ben? are evoked stylistically, too. Particularly in the early parts of the film, swift editing — notably abrupt location and time jumps — not only emphasise the fast pace of Ben's lifestyle, they highlight the blank spaces in his existence. It's as if the periods of time between each highly stimulated encounter or experience is merely tedium to be skipped over. Yet often it is when we are alone and still that we can locate the  deeper meaning that underscores our activities.

Later, the film employs montages to carry this same theme of superficiality, and to telescope Ben's angst and emotional journey. Ironically, these sequences, which could be intended to elevate those 'in between' times, themselves become tedious and even grating. Given the number of Melbourne galleries, nightspots and attractions (from Captain Cook's Cottage to the Australian Open) featured, at times you can't escape the impression that this is actually a glorified promo for Tourism Victoria.

At 114 minutes, Any Questions For Ben? is easily half an hour too long, and would have benefited from maintaining the sharpness of those earlier sequences. It's greatest weakness is that it ultimately offers pat answers to its perennial existential questions, where perhaps it should offer none.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street

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Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Gen Y, Any Questions For Ben?



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Existing comments

Thank you for this review - and your reviews overall . Inciteful and helpful as usual. I have just finished reading the 2 main articles of this edition (Yours and Hamilton on News Limited and society's aggression towards itself) and I am so grateful for these fine pieces and I know why i support "Eureka Street" .

FayeLawrence | 17 February 2012  

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