It comes as no surprise that anxious comedian Simon Amstell opens his semi-autobiographical debut film with his lead character, anxious film-maker Benjamin, neurotically and compulsively criticising his own (terrible) semi-autobiographical film. “What’s wrong with it? It’s not too funny? Would it be insane if we made it black and white?” He relaxes only once his producer reminds him that everyone who sees his movie will die eventually.
Benjamin (Colin Morgan) is the kind of guy whose self-awareness has so far brought him no closer to self-improvement. Here is a man who has so many defences he is incapable of love, making a film about a man who has so many defences he is incapable of love. When a new chance at love falls in his lap, he’s once again unable to allow himself vulnerability.
Amstell has always laughed at himself, and the film’s sardonic humour is rooted in these contradictions in Benjamin’s character. “External validation isn’t everything,” he says seriously to his new, younger boyfriend, despite desperately seeking the approval of the creative establishment in almost every preceding scene. The masturbatory London art world itself is played for laughs, too: from the publicist who declares his film “genius!” despite not watching it in full, to the narcissistic actor who won’t “label” his exploitative relationships. “It’s a children’s party!” Benjamin’s friend despairs at one “creative” event.
If this all seems a bit meta, Benjamin is grounded by its very sweet love story. In a cameo, film critic Mark Kermode says he wishes Benjamin had made a straightforward romcom: Amstell, wisely, has done just that. It’s a portrait of a man nudging himself towards the good and scary parts of life: learning how to push back at his neuroses – even if he can’t let go of them completely.
This article appears in the 20 Mar 2019 issue of the New Statesman, State of emergency