Ruben Guthrie is savage in its representation of the dangerous permissiveness of Australia’s drinking culture. Shot like the ads its protagonist creates, alcohol is truly at the forefront of the frame, with barely a scene passing without a character shown, drink in hand. Based on Cowell’s own experiences with his friends’ reactions to his attempts at sobriety, Cowell overplays these moments to sustain the struggle between Ruben and his surrounds. It may not be subtle, but it is effective.
We find creative director and ad-man extraordinaire Ruben Guthrie (Patrick Brammall) at the top of his game, having just won the award for Best Ad for the fourth year running. A misjudged drunken leap into his pool from his roof lands him with a broken arm and a challenge from his Czech model girlfriend, Zoya (Abbey Lee), who says that she will take him back if he can stay sober for one year. But Ruben lives in a world that oozes alcohol from every pore, from his extensive home bar to his barely-functioning alcoholic father (Jack Thompson), who has left his mother (Robyn Nevin) for his kitchenhand (Elly Oh); his enabling boss Ray (Jeremy Sims) who needs Ruben on the sauce to do his job, and his best friend Damien (Alex Dimitriades) who returns from a failed stint in New York, duty free alcohol in tow. At times it is hard to believe that Ruben’s friends and family can be so determined to enable him, with Jack Thompson’s requests to just “have a drink with my bloody son” feeling particularly forced.
On the whole, though, the film feels uneven in its plotting – Ruben reveals the heartbreaking backstory at the core of his alcohol dependence, only to never refer to it again. Zoya, the pot of gold at the end of the sober rainbow, disappears as a motivating force on discovering Ruben’s new housemate Virginia; Damien and Virginia are seen to be battling for Ruben’s body and soul but their tense cohabitation is shortlived; Ruben’s parents have their own drama taking place in the film’s periphery that occupies either too much or too little screen time to sit comfortably in the narrative. The film is ostensibly structured around Ruben’s progression through his sober year, with a day count appearing on screen to keep us up to date with his progress. These narrative threads compete for centre stage, each offering a structuring frame, a source of tension and narrative force. Ultimately none of them truly win out, leaving the film feeling oddly paced.
Patrick Brammall walks a thin line as our eponymous hero: Ruben needs to be likeable enough for us to invest in his journey, but unlikeable enough that we see the need for change. He carries the film with an incredible performance, yet too often the film renders the more despicable parts of Ruben’s character as comedic side effects of the system, the world he needs to live in and the alcohol he needs to do so. A montage-monologue about a particularly bad bender contains some truly awful casual misogyny, as Ruben describes a night with a “slut in a blue bra” among other Bacchanal pursuits, but the whole sequence is played for laughs. Whilst it reveals the extent to which Ruben denies he is an alcoholic, it relies on too many bigoted one-liners intended to entertain.
The stage to screen adaptation is mostly a smooth process – the film is very present in its settings, making use of the full breadth of Ruben’s milieu. There are some talkier scenes that bear the mark of their theatrical beginnings, but there are some marked changes. As to be expected, the film is populated with some of Australian theatre’s greatest staples – Nevin is truly great as Ruben’s well-intentioned but ultimately destructive mother, and Blazey Best is wonderful in a small role as the leader of Ruben’s homegroup. Jeremy Sims embodies a fantastically repressed Australian masculinity as Ruben’s boss Ray, who despite styling himself as a father figure, actively runs from Ruben’s cries for help. Jack Thompson is solid as a glimpse into Ruben’s future, and the historical socialisation of excessive drinking. Alex Dimitriades is as wonderful as ever, embracing an absurdly Faustian character with relish and aplomb.
Without a doubt, it is the film’s women who are uniformly short changed. Abbey Lee’s Zoya is pure exoticised femininity, complete with a shaky accent and an eating disorder thrown in for character development but never given the depth of exploration or experience it merits. She exists narratively as a prize, a tool for the gamification of Ruben’s sobriety, which oddly loses its driving force at the beginning of the third act when she finally walks away. The film informs us that she was only 16 when she and Ruben got together, but never really address the lecherousness of the age gap and the dependence created. Lee is at her best when not dealing with the script, in her silent moments when she reveals the true anguish of living with an uncaring alcoholic.
Harriet Dyer’s Virginia is equally under-developed, with a backstory of abuse and drug addiction that feels just as tokenistic as Zoya’s eating disorder, discussed with a throwaway callousness that feels forceful in is devaluing effect. She may have had “relatives stick remote controls insider her”, but now she’s just an annoying, mooching hippy living off Ruben’s need for adoration, “thirteen stepping him” and making him dependent on her. Even Ruben’s mother suffers at the hands of a script fascinated by masculinity, shown to take Ruben’s cheating father back, forgiving his infidelity as understandable as she is, in her own words, “old”. Ruben accuses her of having no self-respect but the film gives her few options for dignity, forced to validate his father’s decision to leave her due to her waning desirability. The misogyny at the heart of the script, and its dismissive treatment of women, trickles down to the most minor of characters – a receptionist at Lexus and prior conquest of Ruben’s who is dangled briefly in front of him to remind him of his former lifestyle. The pernicious nature of Australian masculinity can make for interesting storytelling, but doesn’t justify the casually harmful treatment of those around it.
There is much to be made of the film’s excessive inclusion of brands. Financed by those brands featured in the film, there is at least a narrative justification for their presence, and it is in some ways an almost inspired producing move – a film rooted in the advertising world can become an ad in and of itself, particularly in today’s dire film financing climate. It is truly native advertising – the play’s Subliminal advertising agency becomes the very real GPY&R. If you can’t ignore the clumsy references to Lexus (who partnered with the Sydney Film Festival to present the film at Opening Night), the Randwick Racecourse and more, you can at least admire the resourcefulness of the producers.
The film’s final moments are perhaps its strongest, as Ruben loses his battle with the help of his enabling mother. An extravagant bender with the ever-larger than life Damien is shot in slow-motion, with Sarah Blasko’s melancholic sounds providing the score. As an audience, we have seen so many montages of drinking and partying, from mere moments before to countless other films. While the soulful piano score and colourful lines of drinks may feel somewhat on the nose, there is an unsettling relentlessness to this sequence, a sense of loss to scenes of victorious partying. His mother’s edict of “everything in moderation” feels particularly hollow in this moment. We leave Ruben, a few scenes later, on a plane in pursuit of Zoya, a complimentary glass of champagne perched in front of him. Brammall’s silent struggle with the urge to drink is compelling and affecting. This is Ruben Guthrie’s final offering, a glimpse of the continuing battle with substances, rather than a neat triumph in his achievement.
In this vein, Cowell’s film is commendable for its unflinching portrayal of this so-called “alcoholic country”, and for a directorial debut it is confident and effective, completely immersed in both its advertising and alcoholic origins. Explorations of masculinity are hardly virgin territory for the screen or the stage, though, and it is disappointing to see what is let slip and allowed to persist in the process of adaptation.
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