The Working Dog team return with a funny and touching exploration of quarter-life crisis and choice, bringing with it a broader message than its young cast might indicate.
Despite being ever-present on our small screens, the creative forces of Santo Cilauro, Rob Sitch, Jane Kennedy, Tom Gleisner and Michael Hirsh – known collectively as Working Dog – have been absent from cinemas for 12 years. Made up of former members of the television troupe that produced The D-Generation and The Late Show, their success with the now-iconic The Castle might have forever given them a place on the map, and hits with The Dish and the small screen’s The Panel and Thank God You’re Here has helped keep them there. It is brilliant to know that with all the changes to the Australian film industry in the last decade or so, there is still a place for original comedies in the market.
The 27 year-old Ben (Josh Lawson) has it all: a high paying job in marketing, women falling at his feet and a great circle of friends. None of these things ever slow, or tie, Ben down. Yet when he is asked to return to his former high school, along with UN humanitarian worker Alex (Rachael Taylor), it all goes wrong when none of the students have any questions for him after his career speech. Sparking a quarter-life crisis, his best friend Andy (Christian Clark) takes him on a holiday, his mentor Sam (Lachy Hulme) gets him to buy a sports car and his friends Nick (Daniel Henshall) and Em (Felicity Ward) don’t offer him the advice he wants to hear. Even his father (Rob Carlton) has no sage advice to offer. Ben begins to learn that bungee jumping and dating Russian tennis stars may not be the answer he’s looking for.
There’s a danger in any film about a life crisis that if the character is not relatable, their trials and tribulations will come off as nothing more than whinging. The writing team of Cilauro, Sitch and Gleisner certainly set themselves a challenge with Ben, who lives a life that many audience members would find enviable. Yet before we can strike up a chorus of poor little rich boy, the motif of the school talk provides us with a relatable outlet for his anguish. Many of us live in fear of school reunions, or at least running into people from our past, and not being cooler or more successful than we were in the schoolyard. To have worked hard for ten years and to not be accepted as such causes derailment in Ben’s life, and provides much of the fine comedy/pathos in the film.
Essential to this is Josh Lawson in the lead role of Ben. Another gamble for the team, who had written the part with him in mind, especially given his leading man roles had been limited to the virtually overlooked The Wedding Party. Yet Lawson is a natural comic, verbalising Working Dog’s tightly-written script as though the thoughts had just occurred to him. Christian Clark as Ben’s clueless best friend provides a grounding companion, and occasionally echoes the audience reaction of wondering why Ben is even complaining in the first place. Henshall does a complete one-eighty from his previous role in Snowtown, playing the most softly-spoken friend you could possibly imagine. In a credit to the team, all of the women are strong individuals in their own right, and not just objects of affection/foils for our protagonist. Love interest Taylor gives one of her most naturalistic performances to date, while Felicity Ward keeps the restless Ben on his toes. Even Liliya May, as a fictional Top 10 Russian tennis player, is able to move on faster than Ben.
Apart from being frequently incredibly funny, Any Questions for Ben? has the same kind of universal message that could be found in Working Dog’s debut The Castle. As humans living in an increasingly interconnected world, choice (or at least the illusion of choice) leaves us in a perpetual state of crisis. The particulars of Ben’s dilemma might be outside the reach of most of us mere mortals, but his struggle to find a meaning to all the ephemera of his life is common to us all, making him just as much a local hero as Darryl Kerrigan.