Benny & Jolene is an improvised British comedy about a folk duo travelling to their first music festival. That is roughly the extent of the narrative although if I were feeling more generous I could talk about how Jolene (Charlotte Ritchie) finds herself selling out and changing her style to please their record label while Benny (Craig Roberts) finds himself pushed to the sidelines as he pines for Jolene and the music they used to perform. The plot is the bare bones on which the two leads are left to build the body of the film through their performances and improvisations but the result is something slightly less than the sum of its parts.
Roberts has never put a comedic foot wrong since he first caught everyone’s eye in Submarine and Ritchie repeats the awkward funny charm that has helped make Fresh Meat so successful but these two on their best game simply aren’t enough to make a film. There is so little to the film beyond the characters that there is little to keep you engaged from scene to scene. Roberts and Ritchie are fine company but you want them to move their performances to a film with a little more to it. There is no message here, just mildly amusing scene followed by mildly amusing scene.
The improvisational style gives the film a feeling of authenticity that is frustrating as often as it is engaging. Improvisation can lead to small comedy gems within scenes but also leaves each scene to run on far longer than an audience has patience for and results in numerous edits within a single shot that quickly moves from a stylistic choice to a jarring effect that hampers the film’s flow.
The great lead performances almost save the film but at the end of the day the cast simply weren’t given enough to go on. The supporting cast includes the likes of the excellent Dolly Wells and Rosamund Hanson but they suffer a similar fate of doing good work in a weak film. Perhaps I am being too harsh; the film is sweet and funny and was an enjoyable experience but it didn’t give me any real cinematic sustenance. With a little more plot and a stricter script this film has the potential to have been a real winner, instead we’ll have to settle for bronze.
Benny & Jolene is on limited release in the UK from tomorrow.