Working Dog might be a tight-knit team of twenty years standing with an admirable track record of success across pretty much all forms of Australian media – and a global success under their belt with Thank God You’re Here – but it’s still possible to take a guess at which member is the driving force behind their various individual projects. The books always seem to be largely the work of Tom “Tommy G” Gleisner because he’s the “writer” of the bunch (he’s written a bunch of Warwick Todd cricketing parodies on his own). Their current television series Sports Fever! feels like a Santo Cilauro project, in part because it’s spun off from their World Cup sports show and Santo’s a soccer tragic, and in part because he’s the one hosting. And Any Questions For Ben, Working Dog’s latest feature film, feels like something Rob Sitch has got his shoulder behind… which is where the problems start.
One of our favourite Rob Sitch stories comes from an episode of Working Dog’s big TV success of the late 1990s, The Panel. Mick Molloy was a guest on this particular evening’s episode, and at one stage Rob had the show cut to a new car commercial that was an especially slick example of the form. (it may have even been this one… or maybe not) When the ad was done Rob turned to Mick and said “what do you think, Mick?” Mick just laughed and said “it’s shithouse”.
Mick had a point: whatever its’ technical achievements, whatever its’ conceptual brilliance, the ad was, like every single other ad made in the history of humanity, ultimately shithouse. It’s nothing but a slick product designed to evoke a feeling then use that feeling to sell you something. Unfortunately, that’s as good a description as any to describe Any Questions For Ben. Like the ad, it’s all surface polish and feel-good vibes, with nothing underneath but a vague sense that you’re being sold something you probably don’t really want.
For those that don’t know, the plot of AQFB is simple… a little too simple in fact. Ben (Josh Lawson) is 27 years old and living the good life in Melbourne. He dates models, he makes a fortune in some kind of media / branding job, he has good friends and good times. But when he goes back to his high school for careers day and none of the kids have any questions for him, he’s thrown. Is his life as empty and shallow as all that? Better date a few more models and go to a few more parties to figure this shit out.
The film’s one big obvious problem is that once Ben realises he has a problem he does nothing about it. In fact, there is so little dramatic development in this film that while there are SPOILERS AHEAD they’re barely worth the name because Ben literally does nothing to change his life once he enters his “quarter-life crisis”. He just continues down the same path, occasionally asking questions of those around him then doing nothing with the answers. Worse, while his problem has been in part that he’s been dating gorgeous women he knows nothing about and has zero in common with, the solution to his mounting ennui turns out to be… dating a gorgeous woman he knows nothing about and has zero in common with. It’s a film that has to end exactly when it does because it’s obvious that six months later she’d be out of his life and the cycle would begin again.
Despite what we said earlier, just because Sitch is out front on this project as the director doesn’t mean it’s entirely his baby (much like having Santo as host of Sports Fever! doesn’t mean the other two aren’t shaping the show from behind the scenes). In fact, from what we’ve heard about the production Working Dog is a real team effort: Gleisner does script re-writes on the set, Santo handles the technical side of filming and Sitch is the one who deals with the actors and their performances. Add in Jane Kennedy (who handles casting and music) and Michael Hirsh (the business side of things), and you have a fairly self-contained unit.
But this feels like a “Rob Sitch” Working Dog project because the “Rob Sitch” projects (the other one that really fits the bill is The Panel) are all about shallow fun. A Gleisner project is about jokes and plenty of them; Santo’s projects feel passionate and rambling. Reportedly Sitch was the one who said if they made a third movie (after The Castle and The Dish) they should make an urban film set in the present day; if nothing else, AQFB is certainly that. Then again, so was Death in Brunswick, and that had a hell of a lot more laughs.
Of course, there’s a fourth kind of Working Dog project: the commercial kind. Even now, after they let both The Panel and Thank God You’re Here linger past their use-by dates, they’re still seen as a team that jumps from project to project once they get bored. So let’s say that’s true: after pretty much achieving all their artistic goals in comedy with the successes of both the sitcom Frontline and the movie The Castle, it’s fair to assume that their next round of goals would be commercial.
The Panel was a long running chat show that was a massive commercial success in Australia; Thank God You’re Here was a format sold around the world. The Jetlag series of comedy travel books were best-sellers; Jane Kennedy did well with a non-comedy cookbook. They’ve had their share of misfires (did anyone even know they put out Audrey Gordon’s Tuscan Summer, a fake foodie book, a year or so ago?), but their only really biggish failure was The Dish, which did well in Australia but fizzled in the US market. Not that they’d admit they were looking for overseas success, but you don’t bring US actors into an Australian film – or make a film saying that Australia’s minor role in a US project shaped our nation – unless you’re looking beyond our shores.
In that light trying again at the movies, especially with their coffers flush with Thank God You’re Here cash, makes sense. It also explains why AQFB is a film with next to no artistic reason for existing. This isn’t a story anyone was demanding be told, because it’s barely a story; it’s a glamour photography session with Melbourne lounging around trying to look sexy. Aerial shots of the city at night! Cool music! Major events! Hip bars! Everyone looks great!
To be fair, romantic comedies often rely on a polished, hyper-real atmosphere as a backdrop for their tale of true lurv. But as mentioned, there’s little sense of true love in action here. Instead, Ben’s personal dramas seem to be kept as low key as possible so as to not disrupt his regular appearances at hip night spots. If he was going through a real personal crisis, he might not feel like attending the Spring Racing Carnival or going snowboarding at Queenstown. So it seems fair to assume that making sure he visited loads and loads of cool-looking places was a higher priority story-wise than giving him an actual story, let alone making him a funny guy. After all, comedy is one of the hardest things to export, even between English-speaking countries; if you want to make a film that’ll do well overseas, downplaying the Australian sense of humour may not be a bad idea.
Mind you, Working Dog are smart cookies and they know to hedge their bets, so while the main characters are a largely bland and laff-free bunch living the good life the extensive supporting cast are given plenty to work-with comedy-wise. Okay, perhaps “plenty” is an exaggeration. Still, people like Lachy Hulme (basically playing Marty Boomstein from Boytown, only with better hair and worse jokes), Ed Kavalee and John Howard have solid comedy cameos, while Alan Brough, David James (from The Hollowmen) and Sean Lynch (from The Shambles) also get laughs from their small roles. Sitch also makes a funny appearance as Ben’s high school headmaster, proving once again that he’s one of Australia’s better comic actors. Maybe next time instead of hiring good looking up-and-comers whose comedy skills are average at best Working Dog could build a film around Sitch?
The problem is that Working Dog have nothing to prove artistically. They’re never going to make a film funnier or more beloved than The Castle, and they’d be foolish to try. Instead, they’ve focused their film efforts on trying to come up with something that looks good and will appeal to as wide an audience in Australia and globally so as to rake in the really big bucks (sadly, it seems they’ve already failed). The result is that Any Questions For Ben passes on being dramatic or funny or all that interesting in favour of selling an image of Melbourne as a swinging international city full of handsome people having fun. It’s basically a 110 minute car commercial; wonder what Mick Molloy would have to say about that.