Ruben Guthrie (Brendan Cowell, 2015)
Have you ever responded with dismay when a friend has refused an alcoholic beverage? Do you live in Australia? If you answered yes to both of these questions, Ruben Guthrie should hit close to home. Brendan Cowell directs this adaptation of his 2008 play, reflecting a very flawed attitude to booze back to the viewer.
Ruben (Patrick Brammall) is a high-flying Sydney-sider living the dream – he has a successful career in advertising, a supermodel fiancée, and a glamourous waterfront property stocked with a personal bar. He holds excessive parties where the alcohol flows freely, but when one of these leads to an accident, he is forced to re-evaluate. His fiancée Zoya (Abbey Lee) announces she is leaving him, setting him the challenge of sobriety for one year, after which he can find her.
Ruben Guthrie’s origins as a stage play are evident – its lengthy monologues feel heavily dramatised and unnatural on screen, and a few key scenes come across as overly exaggerated. However, this is the only criticism I can level at Cowell’s film, which has a sobering message for local audiences. Supporting characters do not respond well to Ruben’s attempts at sobriety, with his parents, his best friend, and his boss all encouraging him to give up this ludicrous lifestyle change because it just doesn’t make them feel comfortable. This is despite the devastating effects alcohol has had on every one of their lives, but it’s the Aussie way! And it’s nearly racing season! A scene where his mother (Robyn Nevin) forces alcohol down his throat seems highly exaggerated, but as a metaphor for how much we are inundated with pressures to conform to a local drinking culture, it certainly rings true.
Cowell has assembled an impressive local cast, with Offspring’s Patrick Brammall leading the pack. Here he veers off from his usual sweet, slightly-awkward love interest role to a character who is a bit of a dick, but mostly due to the alcohol. While I’d expected him to up the arrogance for a real douchebag performance, his character is written as actually not too bad once you remove the façade that his alcoholism provides. Some have suggested Cowell could have easily cast himself as Ruben, but Brammall is somewhat easier to root for.
Abbey Lee (seen recently in Mad Max: Fury Road) is mesmerising with those killer eyes of hers, although her Czech accent feels awkward – it’s not necessarily a bad attempt (I wouldn’t know) but the mere knowledge that it’s fake throws the viewer. Harriet Dyer (of television’s Love Child) is utterly convincing as a green-haired reformed alcoholic whose character seems a light dig at the hippy persona, without being ridiculous or downright annoying. Jack Thompson and Robyn Nevin as Ruben’s floundering parents remind us that they’re top shit in the veteran’s acting game, and Alex Dimitriades steals the show as the bitchy and flamboyant best mate, Damian. Though he’s a hoot, he’s the one character who relies perhaps too heavily on stereotypes.
Ruben Guthrie is genuinely funny in parts, but at its core it is a serious portrayal of addiction and a society which enables it. The ending is perfect (despite being obviously stage-like) and Cowell succeeds in tackling the big issues. After the success of his recent play The Sublime, which tackled the issue of footy sex scandals, it is clear he has plenty to say about the intrinsic problems in Australian culture. He is adept at making audiences uncomfortable when faced with harsh realities. Let’s hope he keeps on doing so.