When we first meet Ruben Guthrie (Patrick Brammall) in the film that bears his name, he’s hosting an extravagant bash in his swanky harbourside digs after winning an award for his work as an advertising creative. The evening ends with Ruben on the bottom of the pool, having thrown himself off the roof of the house. As you might guess, alcohol is involved. What follows in Ruben Guthrie is a rollercoaster ride of emotions and complications, all underpinned by the notion that Australia’s drinking culture is toxic.
The film started life as a play of the same title penned by Brendan Cowell, who serves as writer and director here. I was fortunate enough to have seen the play a couple of years ago and recall enjoying it immensely. In the confines of a theatre, with much of the action playing out in the audience’s head, it worked. I’m not sure however the leap to the big screen has done the story any favours.
To its credit, Ruben Guthrie is not another stolid, earnest treatise on the dangers of alcohol, nor is it a saccharine journey to 12-step redemption. We have surely seen enough of those. Rather this is a study in social mores and Australian attitudes that can’t help but strike a chord with local audiences. The point here is not so much Ruben’s personal reaction to his (undoubted) alcoholism; but rather how society views and deals with both alcohol and those affected by it.
After his initial incident in the pool, Ruben finds himself battered and bruised – in more ways than one. Urged by his fashion model fiancee Zoya (Abby Lee) to take stock, he attends an AA meeting, but trashes it by basically being a dick. Frustrated and aware that more drastic action is needed, Zoya backs up and heads back to Prague. She gives Ruben a sliver of hope however – if he can stay off booze for one year, she will give him another shot. With Zoya gone, Ruben soon finds himself bonding with Virginia (Harriet Dyer), a fellow AA attendee. However, true believer Virginia has a struggle on her hands keeping Ruben on the straight-and-narrow for a variety of reasons. Ruben’s boss Ray (Jeremy Sims) fears he’s losing his edge without alcohol; his restaurateur father Peter (Jack Thompson) is never without a glass in his hand; and his flamboyant party-boy best friend Damian (Alex Dimitriades) shows up unexpectedly needing a place to stay. With all these pressures, can Ruben resist the siren’s song of the bottle?
I think what cruels Ruben Guthrie as a film is that the sudden tonal shifts, which are integral to the play, don’t translate well to the big screen. This is exacerbated by the inclusion of scenes that weren’t in the play which break up the flow of the piece (a scene early in the film where Ruben and his mother (Robin Nevin) go driving is particularly jarring). Cowell’s script veers between comedy and pathos, occasionally turning the mood in an instant. Again, while that can work on the stage, it needs to be handled differently on film.
The other difficulty is that the broader palette of the film means that the characters – who, after all, were created for the stage – have to be that much bigger again to compensate for the grander scope. In that regard, the cast sometimes struggle with the material. Patrick Brammall (Offspring TV) is a talented actor with a big future, and he delivers a fine performance in Ruben’s smaller, more tender moments. I however was left a little cold by his “bigger” scenes. Alex Dimitriades (The Infinite Man) camps it up outrageously (as the character was written) in the role of Damian and makes him the movie’s most effective villain. Abby Lee (Mad Max: Fury Road) is good as Zoya (even if her accent slips occasionally) as is Harriet Dyer (Love Child TV) as the quietly controlling Victoria. Overall however, there’s something about all the performances that’s a little odd; like they are all acting as if they’re in a play rather than a movie. The film’s naturalism suffers as a result.
Special note should be made of Simon Harding’s crisp cinematography. Apparently Sydney’s tourism authorities had some role in the film, and it shows with some of the city’s glittering harbour views given pride of place. The sunny vistas and cool, architecturally-designed interiors contrast with Ruben’s dark inner turmoil. Fans of Australian singer-songwriter Sarah Blasko should note that she provides the original music for the film.
For all its promise, Ruben Guthrie ends up being somewhat less than the sum of its parts. The good and the not-so-good clash repeatedly over the course of its 93 minutes and the unevenness of its tone doesn’t assist. But while there are difficulties, it’s nonetheless an encouraging feature film debut for Cowell; and hopefully we’ll see more from him in the future.
Director: Brendan Cowell
Cast: Patrick Brammall, Alex Dimitriades, Abbey Lee, Brenton Thwaites, Jack Thompson and Robyn Nevin
Release Date: 16 July 2015
Rating: MA 15+
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television