D: Brendan Cowell / 93m
Cast: Patrick Brammall, Alex Dimitriades, Abbey Lee, Harriet Dyer, Jack Thompson, Robyn Nevin, Jeremy Sims, Brenton Thwaites, Aaron Bertram
Four-time advertising award winner Ruben Guthrie (Brammall) has it all: the high-paid job that he’s phenomenally good at, the luxurious home with a pool, a beautiful model girlfriend, Zoya (Lee), and a drink problem to match it all. At a party to celebrate his latest awards win, his boozy, extrovert behaviour proves to be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back for Zoya when Ruben finds himself up on his roof and jumping into his pool – and breaking his arm in the process. It’s time for Ruben to face up to his drinking problem and get some help.
So far, Brendan Cowell’s adaptation of his own stage play seems perfectly straightforward, and most viewers will believe they know exactly how the rest of the story will play out. But Cowell’s a shrewd writer who knows his story too well, and Ruben’s journey takes several unexpected turns along the way. He goes to his first AA meeting and instead of being ashamed or embarrassed, he reverts to his usual laddish behaviour and insults everyone. This leads to Zoya giving him an ultimatum: stay sober for a year while she’s gone, and if he can stay sober, to come find her. He somehow manages not to drink, revealing that he has a degree of self-control he either wasn’t aware of, or knew he had but has chosen not to use. At work though, his usual intuitive command of what makes for the best advertising is shown to have deserted him, so much so that his boss is thinking of replacing him with a talented/super chirpy youngster (Thwaites).
And in an effort to kick a character even more when he’s down, Cowell adds further fuel to the flame of Ruben’s reversal of fortune by having his parents (Thompson, Nevin) split up, and his gay best friend Damian (Dimitriades), who’s a bit of a sponger, move in on a temporary/permanent basis. But Ruben proves to be a forbearing soul, and with the aid of fellow alcoholic and mentor, Virginia (Dyer), he weathers the storm of these setbacks, and begins to find a way through them that makes him both stronger and more determined than ever to win Zoya back.
Well, determined might not be the right word, because he succumbs to the emotional fragility and neediness that Virginia exhibits around him and they become a couple. Now, in Australia, this could well be construed as acceptable behaviour on Ruben’s part, but when Zoya’s face adorns a whole wall in Ruben’s home as a permanent reminder of their five years together, you might expect him to be a little more circumspect. But nobody, not even Virginia (who might like to know where she stands in all this) mentions it, and Ruben himself seems to be oblivious to the double standard he’s following. It’s here that the movie finds itself in deeper, darker territory for a while, as Ruben’s sobriety leads him to make all sorts of decisions that he wouldn’t have made as a functioning alcoholic.
Of course, further complications ensue when his father becomes ill, his parents’ relationship becomes even more confusing, he has a major falling out with Damian, and just when you think that things can’t possibly get any worse for him, Zoya turns up out of the blue, and he finds his mother pushing him to resume drinking… because when he’s sober it makes him less of a(n Aussie) man. By now the movie is hell-bent on being a dark comedy, as Ruben’s world continues to implode with the force of a thousand beer bottles crashing to the floor. And then Cowell dispenses with the last shred of Ruben’s self-confidence, and with his main character curling up on the floor, he delivers one last kick to the head.
This is a sincere movie that isn’t just about alcohol addiction and its effects on the addict and the people who love him or her, but a (some times) powerful depiction of all sorts of forms of addiction, from booze to drugs to sex to relationships and back again. It’s also a very funny examination of the pitfalls of modern day living, and the culture of expectation and acceptance of social drinking. It’s often said that everyone drinks in Australia, and that they’re the greatest nation in the world for coming up with ways to justify getting rotten, but while this is a proud boast Down Under, Cowell is canny enough to hold up a mirror to modern Australian society and expose the “rotten” underpinning that stops it from collapsing in on itself. That Ruben bucks the trend for so long is both impressive and unusual.
With Cowell providing such a clever script, and creating a visual style for the movie that confronts and reflects the consequences of Ruben’s decision to quit drinking, it does seem a shame when he develops butterfingers and drops the ball, however momentarily. The aforementioned scene where Ruben’s mother tempts him to return to “the dark side” by having a drink is by turns clumsy, awkward, horrifying, and unnecessary, a way that the movie can explain the social pleasures and pressures of drinking, and advance the plot towards the final third. The role of Damian in proceedings is never clear: he’s not Ruben’s conscience, and nor is he the kind of arch manipulator that a more superficial script might have painted him, but he is surplus to requirements in terms of the dynamics of Ruben’s relationships, and how Ruben sees himself in terms of others around him.
The cast are uniformly good, with Brammall keeping a firm grip on some of the script’s more vague motivational moments, and his performance as Guthrie is both staid and delirious, as the script requires. Dimitriades keeps Damian from becoming a completely stereotypical role, while Lee is allowed to be more than just a pretty face. But it’s Dyer as the addict’s addict – she’s firmly addicted to Ruben, amongst other things – that draws the most attention, and hopefully the movie will lead to bigger and brighter things for the actress. As expected the movie’s patriarch and matriarch dance lightly but with maximum effect to the tune of Cowell’s musical trenchwork, and Thompson and Nevin appear to steal their scenes with others with so little effort it’s almost embarrassing.
All in all, Cowell’s ode to Australia’s national pastime of hitting the turps is a lively, enjoyable movie that makes several relevant points about addiction, and is clever enough to know when to be funny, when to be serious, and when to mix the two elements to their best advantage. It’s a movie that’s a little rough around the edges, and some scenes go on beyond their necessary lifespan, but these are small beer in comparison to the good work found elsewhere. And if Ruben’s next adventure, should it happen, sees him pitch up in Prague in search of Zoya, then Cowell’s acknowledgment that “those motherf*ckers can drink” may well be the challenge that our hero needs.
Rating: 7/10 – hiding a warm, gooey centre amongst the emotional drama and the often ludicrous humour, Ruben Guthrie is a movie about need and addiction that doesn’t downplay the seriousness of the subject matter, but which also manages to find the absurdity in a lifestyle that is ultimately as hollow as an empty beer bottle; Cowell has made a good first feature, and while it has its faults, his commitment – and that of his star’s – isn’t one of them.