Ruben Guthrie is an Australian film written and directed by Brendan Cowell, based on his stage play of the same name about a star of the advertising industry who parties as hard as he is successful. Following an incident where Guthrie, drunk and high, has a ‘Golden God’ moment, jumping from the roof to his pool, just missing and breaking his arm. For the Guthrie presented at the beginning of this film, the pool event would likely fall into the ‘blackout’ category had he not suffered a painfully reminding injury, instead it is a physical testament to his party hard mentality, almost a novelty. The incident is the last straw for his live-in model fiance Zoya, played with a wonderful integrity by Abbey Lee who you may remember as one of the wives from Mad Max: Fury Road. Zoya decides to leave the gorgeous Sydney waterfront home she currently lives in to fly home and live with her mother in Prague but not before painting the picture of what life is like living with ‘the life of the party’ from the partner’s perspective, she challenges Guthrie to stop drinking for a year and then come and find her.
The marketing for Ruben Guthrie would have you believe it is a comedy and to some degree it is. There are witty comebacks and absurd observations that are sorely missing in many Australian screenplays, however the film is much more than that or at least attempts to be. The themes of addiction, impulse, entitlement and self-medication are all addressed in Ruben Guthrie, many via dialogue/monologues which do give the film that feeling as you watch, this has definitely been adapted from a play, but unlike other viewers, I don’t necessarily consider that a bad thing, if the words ring true and for me, Guthrie’s words and those around him seem sadly realistic most of the time.
Some of the secondary characters bring with them a jolting shift in tone from the more dramatic arcs back to an excessive, comedic tone, none more so than Ruben’s best friend Damian played with abandoned glee by Alex Dimitriades. Damian is the first to truly challenge Ruben’s sobriety, followed by his father Peter (Jack Thompson) and shockingly even his mother, who following Zoya’s departure is the driving force in getting Ruben to attend AA meetings. These people care for Ruben but fear they will lose a key component of their ability to be and bond with him, should he give up the drink for good.
After my screening of Ruben Guthrie, I began to think about the reactions of others to the films characters and content, would your own thoughts on drinking, alcoholism, drug use, the excess and luxury of the wealthy etc. impact your enjoyment of the film or perhaps colour your perception of any theme or message it may be trying to get across to a diverse audience.
Brendan Cowell is a fine actor, Noise remains one of my favourite performances by an actor in the last decade and I Love You Too was also an underrated gem starring Cowell and a pre-Game of Thrones fame, Peter Dinklage. So I must say that despite Patrick Brammall doing a fine job as Ruben, I almost wish Cowell played the lead. As a first time feature film director, Cowell does a fine job and given it is based on his play I can imagine him wanting to maintain a certain level of control over the story. It is the writing that is Cowell’s strong suit, the film while suffering at times from those jarring tonal changes discussed above and the common issues associated with adapting existing material, I highly recommend seeing this film in theatres or when it is realised on DVD/VOD. I don’t say that just because I am a staunch supporter of Australian Film, rather because Ruben Guthrie raises a lot of questions that we as Australians need to be thinking about, perhaps more critically and in depth than the film presents, however if a piece of cinema can be both amusing, and thought provoking, isn’t that an achievement in itself?
I have worked in the alcohol and drug sector in the past both as a counsellor and in public health/prevention, anyone who thinks Australia doesn’t have a significant problem with alcohol is blind. I say that as someone who does drink to excess at times. I am part of the problem. When will we be willing to do something about it? Can anything be done? It always amuses me when I hear friends talk about or write on social media in derogatory terms about ‘illicit drug users’, you know those ice addicts, heroin users shooting up in alley ways and other such characterisation who then drink to the point of blacking out on a regular basis, who may themselves cost the Australian Health System a lot of money as they continue to drink and develop serious health problems.
In a key scene early on Ruben shouts to Zoya that he helped her through her ‘bulimia bullshit’ to which Zoya responds by calling Australia ‘an alcoholic country’ and comparing his drinking problem to a lifestyle choice of excess. This is the first piece of dialogue that intrigued me; alcohol in Australia and many other countries is intrinsically linked to important life events that emote feelings of success, celebration and bonding, is that why we don’t see excess drinking in these situations a problem? Later in the film as Ruben slowly opens up about some of his past and his earlier drinking patterns we discover his use changed following an event of significant grief and regret that has led to a lifelong feeling of guilt. I’ve always thought of guilt as the silent killer, an emotional sniper that we know is there, ready to pull the trigger while we go about our lives, functioning normally, with few people baring witness to our internal pain. It appears that Ruben, like many other Australians suffering silently through grief, guilt, loneliness and an array of mental health issues use alcohol as a primary self medicator, because its legal and if your goal is to simply ‘escape’, go to sleep or silence the thoughts racing through your mind, you can walk into your local Dan Murphy’s and buy a bottle of wine for $2.50, that’s seven or eight standard drinks closer to peace, closer to the ability to keep ‘functioning’ as a member of society. If you are lucky enough to be wealthy like Ruben Guthrie, you’ll be drinking the best champagne and snorting coke, but is the underlying motivation and outcome the same?
As mentioned earlier, through his journey to a year of sobriety Ruben is tempted and taunted by friends and family members to drink with them. The only people on his side are his AA group (I commend the film for commenting both positively and critically about the AA movement, it has worked for many people so regardless of my person thoughts, I would never suggest someone shouldn’t join, research just needs to be done, like you would with any support/care service). Ruben also befriends and then beds his AA sponsor, Virginia (Harriet Dyer), which in my opinion are some of the weaker parts of the film, however it does work to reinforce that regardless of achievements in sobriety people are prone to remain in toxic relationships/environments whether it be conscious or not. Virginia and Ruben become co-dependent and as Damien subtlety points out, they’ve replaced boozing with fucking. Watching the way his friends and family treat Ruben, may seem a bit over the top to some but I say it is on point. If you are a non-drinker or a one and done in Australia, you better pray to god you are pregnant because otherwise you will likely be looked upon as a social leper, like smokers huddled in the cold outside bars and restaurants. Or worse, some people I know have been accused of trying to be ‘superior’ or ‘judgmental’ merely for not partaking in a drinking session. Is drinking alcohol really the only way to have fun? Have we convinced ourselves of that?
I again am a prime example, I’ve known my husband for almost 11 years and in that whole time I think I’ve seen him drunk maybe five times, for the rest of that time he is a one beer every now and then kind of guy. On some Saturday nights when I’m making my way heartily through a bottle of wine, my ‘reward’ for suffering through a week of work and life demands, I get pissy at him for not ‘drinking with me’ as if in some way we both got loaded and spent the night talking about weird shit or watching a stupid movie it would strengthen our marriage. Pretty messed up really. So while Ruben Guthrie may not be an instant ‘classic’ or represent the “prestige” Australian cinema of the dark themed variety, it provides an entertaining, darkly comic look at the life of one man trying to stop drinking while at the same time posing some probing questions to its audience, but will they want to hear them?