Director: Jamie Adams
Cast: Craig Roberts, Charlotte Ritchie, Rosamund Hanson, Dolly Wells
Watch Benny & Jolene online in the UK: TalkTalk TV / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Eircom / Virgin Media / EE / TalkTalk
“I know he wants me. But I’m too hot. He’s floppy.”
Those are the lyrics to Hard/Soft, a failed attempt by Jolene (Ritchie) to write a racy pop song. She’s in a folk band with Benny (Roberts). He doesn’t want to sing racy pop songs. But as the duo arrive at the cusp of fame, a team of people try to push them towards mainstream success. Needless to say, none of them work together very well.
Films about musicians are having something of a moment right now, from the sincere (Inside Llewyn Davis) to the sweet (We Are the Best!) and the silly (Frank). But where all of these musician films worked, Benny & Jolene doesn’t quite click: they simply don’t convince as, well, musicians.
Writer/director Jamie Adams’ comedy is largely based on improvisation, which gives his lead couple ample screen time to spar. Charlotte Ritchie is great as the earnest, confused singer, while Craig Roberts is suitably gloomy as the intense, artistic one, who does everything else. But do they work as an ensemble? Not really.
An early sequence on a TV breakfast show is a laugh-out-loud introduction to the pair, as they stumble over such simple questions such as what instruments they play – and then mime badly to a recording. Unfortunately, that note of insincerity accompanies the whole piece, both in terms of instruments (we rarely see them play anything) and emotions.
“He’s like a hot brother,” Jolene says of Benny, and that uncomfortable chemistry is partly the problem. The two performers lack a romantic spark, more believable as siblings than will-they-won’t-they lovers.
Adams fills his 90 minutes with a host of equally bumbling people, from the mildly amusing – a PR person played cluelessly by Rosamund Hanson – to the annoyingly unfunny – Dolly Wells as Jolene’s overbearing mum. As the ensemble go on tour, the claustrophobic tension of the cramped caravan is captured well, but not always intentionally; whether it is a weakness of the editing or the script, the band’s loosely filmed journey becomes repetitive and stretched out, like a chord held on for too long.
The band members are talented, but they don’t quite gel. There are times when everyone falls into beautiful comedic harmony – a rivalry between simultaneous sex scenes is finely tuned – but more often than not, the laughter track seems to be missing. And without a central relationship to keep you fully engaged, those silent bars gradually become more noticeable. It climaxes in a painfully clumsy bedroom encounter clearly meant to be awkward, but all it does is emphasise the underlying obstacle: Benny & Jolene are great on their own. As a band, they miss a beat.