Ruben Guthrie

July 18, 2015
Patrick Brammall in 'Ruben Guthrie (2015)
Patrick Brammall in 'Ruben Guthrie (2015)

If you’ve ever harboured uncharitable thoughts about the guys who do the ‘creative’ stuff in advertising agencies, Ruben Guthrie will satisfy your prejudices. There’s not much chance of warming to any of the lead characters, especially the eponymous hero, possibly the least sympathetic protagonist in an Aussie flick since Mick Taylor started terrorising backpackers in Wolf Creek.

Ruben, played by Patrick Brammall, is the kind of character you’d like to introduce to Mick in a dark alley. The film begins with a wild party at Ruben’s designer house on Sydney Harbour, in celebration of his latest international advertising award. He’s completely blotto and out of control, which is the final straw for his Czech supermodel girlfriend, Zoja (Abbey Lee), who packs a suitcase and leaves.

Distraught, but still in a drunken fuzz, Ruben jumps off his roof, aiming – slightly inaccurately – for the swimming pool. This is the cue for the real story to begin: the tale of a loud-mouth jerk with a broken arm who decides to give up the booze for a year to win back the woman he loves. During that time Ruben will reluctantly embrace the Alcoholics Anonymous program. He will begin to question his decadent lifestyle, and recognise the degree to which his family and friends are immersed in a rampant drinking culture.

There have been some brilliant movies about alcoholics. Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945) is the classic, but one might also look to Ed Harris’s Pollock (2000), and James Ponsoldt’s underrated Smashed (2012). I can’t see Ruben Guthrie joining the honour roll.

Ruben’s turn to sobriety doesn’t make him any more likeable. Egocentric and shallow, he has now become sanctimonious as well. At home he is torn in different directions by his predatory gay friend, Damian (Alex Dimitriades), who comes to stay, and by a new age girlfriend, Virginia (Hazel Dyer), whom he meets at AA. Meanwhile he has to deal with the marriage problems of his wealthy parents (Robyn Nevin and Jack Thompson), after his dad takes off with a Korean kitchen hand who works in his waterside restaurant.

Brendan Cowell’s debut as a feature director is based on a play he wrote for Belvoir Street in 2008, and the film retains traces of its stage origins. Ruben’s house is pretty much a set – with a glittering mountain of bottles to symbolise his alcoholism, and a wall-sized photo of his girlfriend to underline her centrality in his life. In the more naturalistic setting of the cinema these devices feel overstated. Not many AA members keep a fully stocked bar at home. Few new girlfriends would move into a house in which an entire wall was devoted to an image of the previous incumbent.

Ruben Guthrie has been greeted with considerable fanfare, screening on the opening night of this year’s Sydney Film Festival. It’s a movie that paints a lurid picture of Sydney as a city given over to hedonistic excess, where money is worshipped and splashed around. By contrast, the Melbourne Film Festival will open on 30 July with Paul Cox’s Force of Destiny, a maudlin, low-budget drama about a sculptor who finds love while he is dying of cancer. This comparison says everything one needs to know about the difference between Sydney and Melbourne.

Both films are also broadly autobiographical. Brendan Cowell has fought his own battles with alcohol, while Paul Cox has survived cancer by virtue of a liver transplant. The telling difference is that Cox is almost pathologically introspective, while Cowell is all surface. When Ruben feels unhappy with himself he tends to smash something – a glass, a phone, a laptop. It’s a clumsy way of signifying a crisis.

Everyone in this film is a caricature – a one-dimensional version of the people you might meet at an advertising agency or a society function. Cowell has described the movie as a comedy, and while the gags keep coming, they inspire a grimace rather than a laugh. When Ruben turns up for his first AA meeting and asks if tracksuits are obligatory attire, are we expected to smile at his high-handed attitude? Smartarse behaviour isn’t funny.

Some of the worst moments take place at Ruben’s agency, where he is hailed as a genius, although the only commercial we see, for the Vivid festival, provides little evidence.

His hyped-up boss, Ray (Jeremy Sims), showers Ruben with flattery, then tries to get him back on the turps. He teases his star performer by introducing him to Chet (Brenton Thwaites), a young, street-wise hotshot, waiting to take over his mantle. Words cannot describe the gruesomeness of this character.

While the story is never allowed to drag, the triteness of the writing becomes progressively more exasperating.

Ultimately it’s difficult to say whether Cowell intended to create a gallery of completely repulsive types, or hoped we might feel compassion for them. If the latter, there may be some truth in the idea that sobriety puts a brake on creativity. Although this movie is critical of Australia’s love affair with alcohol, it made me long for a stiff drink.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iyaE_L3TghI

Ruben Guthrie
Written & directed by Brendan Cowell
Starring Patrick Brammall, Abbey Lee, Alex Dimitriades, Harriet Dyer, Robyn Nevin, Jack Thompson, Jeremy Sims, Brenton Thwaites
Australia, rated MA 15+, 93 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 18th July, 2015.