Playing like an episode of Mad Men reworked into a treatise on the Current State of Twentysomethings, Any Questions for Ben? is a film insistent on its own contemporariness. Note the superimposed text at the start of the film pointedly informing us that Ben can’t stay one year in a job without needing to move on (so Generation Y!) or the self-consciously cool locations of Rooftop Cinema and Melbourne’s famous laneway cafes in which the characters hang (so subcultural!). But also note the comprehensive failure of such strategies. The film’s attempts at Sofia Coppolafied joie de vivre are hopelessly undercut by a soundtrack of mid-tempo Australian rock music that sounds like it was cribbed from five-year-old Australian Open television promos. AQFB does not resemble a Sofia Coppola film as much as it embodies the glaringly unconvincing hipness of Bill Murray wearing a yellow camo T-shirt in Lost in Translation.
What the film actually turns out to be is a fairly well-trodden tale of existential angst from the perspective of a successful white male with financial security and a hedonistic lifestyle. Whether it’s Ben in this film or George Clooney’s character in Up in the Air or Don Draper in Mad Men or Marcello in La Dolce Vita, these characters are model citizens of capitalist society, efficient in their jobs and good consumers. Ben is an advertising consultant with an expensive apartment, who dates models and attends the hottest parties. But this fast-lane lifestyle comes undone when he accepts an invitation to return to his old high school with a group of alumni to talk about his achievements and is met with indifference by the student body. Needless to say, this prompts Ben to re-evaluate his life’s direction (though part of me wanted to pull this character aside and tell him that it’s usually a bad choice for a teenager to make important decisions just to impress a group of seventeen-year-olds, and this probably holds truer for someone in their late twenties).
What does this kind of narrative about hedonistic men’s existential crises (let’s call it the What’s-It-All-About-Alfie genre) tell us about life under capitalism today? It indicates that what philosopher and critic Slavoj Zizek refers to as capitalism’s superegoic injunction to enjoy cannot be met without some excess feeling of guilt. In other words, our angst-ridden men are caught in a catch-22: it is in the fulfilment of their duty to be successful participants in capitalist society that they feel most guilt-stricken. Capitalist jouissance is their duty and despair. Zizek suggests that capitalism is able to accommodate this unwanted psychic energy by way of ‘cultural capitalism’ – through feel-good products such as organic food and free-trade coffee, capitalism allows you to ‘buy in the very consumerist act … your redemption from being only a consumerist’. One needs look no further than the nearest Grill’d store, where customers who buy burgers are asked to drop a bottle cap into a box to help the company decide which charity they should donate money to. You’re not only buying a burger; you’re saving the world!
The question regarding the What’s-It-All-About-Alfie genre, then, is: how is capitalist guilt resolved within the narrative? To what end is this psychic energy deployed? The answer, invariably, is a bourgeois romantic coupling. In AQFB’s happy ending, Ben retains his unfulfilling job having resolved his existential crisis by committing himself to a Serious Relationship with a woman (a human rights lawyer, no less!). After the film ends, one is left wondering whether Ben will return to his high school the next year and tell the students that he still has a boring job but it’s okay because he has a hot girlfriend.
By contrast, Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) presents the possibility of a romantic coupling and building a loving family as an illusory solution to its protagonist’s existential angst. Marcello, an unhappy tabloid journalist, visits his friend Steiner and is envious of his seemingly fulfilling life as a comfortable intellectual who socialises with artists and poets and exhibits great passion for his family. It turns out that the stability of Steiner’s world is a fantasy that promptly disintegrates in a later scene where we find out that Steiner has inexplicably murdered his children and committed suicide. Even if this plot point may be overblown, one has to prefer Fellini’s rejection of easy solutions to AQFB’s unerring faith in the redemptive power of romantic love.
But at the same time, we can’t be satisfied with Fellini’s absence of solutions. Perhaps something symptomatic of all these films is that the crisis and solution are framed in individualist terms. The drama plays out not in the relational field of ethics but in the private realm of men’s souls. This is why romantic love is an attractive illusion; it proposes a solution to capitalist guilt that leaves the status quo intact. We might view Year of the Dog (2007), directed by Mike White and starring Molly Shannon, as a quietly radical film in this regard. Again, the film is about an existential crisis: Peggy, a spinster who works in admin, falls to pieces when her closest companion, a pet dog, dies. Where in most comedies this would be the catalyst for Peggy developing a ‘normal’ romantic relationship, Peggy instead develops a passion for animal rights activism. Here we have a new kind of ending, where ethical problems are met with ethical (not private) solutions. Peggy has found something larger than herself to believe in and live for. It’s this ‘something’ that our angst-plagued men have not yet found.