'Ruben Guthrie': Sydney Review

Not amusing enough to get away with its titular character’s utter objectionableness

Actor Brendan Cowell makes his debut as writer-director with a black comedy about going teetotal starring Patrick Brammall, Alex Dimitriades and Abbey Lee.

Filmmakers have long wrestled with how to make getting loaded as interesting for the spectator as for the participant. Generally speaking, there’s nothing more enervating than endless montages of people getting doped or drunk to the gills. Australian actor turned writer-director Brendan Cowell has a bet each way in Ruben Guthrie, an adaptation of his play of the same name, by dramatizing a year in the life of a Sydney ad-man attempting to give up booze, to the dismay of his hard-partying colleagues, friends and family.

There’s plenty of bacchanalian behavior, but Ruben’s mostly a spectator to it. It’s a neat jumping-off point for an exploration of liquor as an enabler of intimacy between heterosexual men, and of the kind of leering entitlement of which the new Entourage movie is the ne plus ultra. Ruben Guthrie at least gestures toward a more gimlet-eyed take on the debauched behavior of its protagonists. But the titular character is such a solipsistic misogynist that a couple of hours spent in his company is about as easy to stomach as the gallons of liquor Ruben’s pals push toward him pretty much relentlessly.

Ruben’s a hotshot creative living in a waterfront mansion with his Czech model girlfriend Zoya, played by Abbey Lee, last seen as one of Immortan Joe’s unfortunate brides in Mad Max: Fury Road. As Zoya informs us later, she was 16 when Ruben “found her” and she moved in, a fact that’s relayed blithely. The film opens during an orgiastic bash at Ruben’s pad worthy of Jordan Belfort, and culminates in Ruben jumping off the roof into his pool, where he sinks to the bottom as assorted trendies look on coolly.

In the wash-up, Zoya tells him she’s going back to Prague. Ruben’s reaction is typically charming: “You’re going to die in the fucking snow chewing on your own hips!” But Ruben’s as fragile as his ego is large, and when Zoya – mystifyingly – tells him to come find her after a year off the drink, he’s desperate to acquiesce. And so begins a year of sobriety, in which the Australian drinking culture comes in for its most unforgiving close-up since Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright (1971).

Or at least that must have been the idea. Ruben Guthrie’s transition from stage to screen has tempered him, and some of the play’s more extreme lines — about Ruben’s orgies with fifteen-year old soap stars in hotels, among other things — have been excised. But by humanizing Ruben (relatively speaking) the film also asks us to sympathize with him, which hardly seemed the point of the more darkly satirical play — not to mention all but impossible, despite the best efforts of Patrick Brammall, who is convincingly frayed in the title role.

Or, as the opening credits have it, Patrick Brammall™. Like the titles, DP Simon Harding’s lensing is slick but garish, with the purposefully chintzy look of one of Ruben’s commercials. This is the Sydney behind the brochure: spectacular but valueless. Ruben’s colleagues at his agency are all men, and he’s the best at dreaming up spots for the lads. He shills spirits as well as the new model Lexus (as ever, satire becomes murky when your film — and its premiere, at Sydney’s State Theatre — is a wall-to-wall showcase of its sponsors).

Ruben’s boss (Jeremy Sims) thinks Ruben has lost his copywriting mojo and is desperate to get him back on the bottle. Brenton Thwaites, of The Giver and the next Pirates of the Caribbean movie, shows up as a kind of nascent Ruben, tanned and too smooth by half, and is mostly wasted. Ruben’s dad (the venerable Jack Thompson) takes his son’s refusal to have a glass as a personal affront; likewise Ruben’s best friend (Alex Dimitriades, enlivening every scene he’s in), who takes an immediate dislike to Virginia (Harriet Dyer), the dewy-eyed vegan — and Ruben’s AA sponsor with benefits — who has shacked up at the Guthrie manse in Zoya’s absence.

Virginia is introduced gazing winsomely at Ruben across the floor of a support meeting. A hair’s breadth later, we’re treated to a shot — from behind — of her crotch as she propels herself through water. Soon she’s moved in and morphed into an unhinged harridan who’s spending all Ruben’s hard-earned money on organic produce. Needless to say, Ruben Guthrie is not a film that aces the Bechdel test. Even Ruben’s mother (Robyn Nevin) is there to enable him — Mom goes from supporting Ruben’s teetotalism to actively breaking his sobriety by holding his mouth open and pouring a glass of white down his gullet.

Ruben’s point of view — simultaneously objectifying and self-pitying — is clearly meant to be the point, but tonally Ruben Guthrie is perched awkwardly between damning expose and redemption story. It ends on a more optimistic note than the play, with Ruben off the grog but staring lustfully at a glass of champagne, torn between an instant salve and the unlikely love of a good woman. Self-annihilation beckons — or so one can only hope. 

Production Company: Scarlett Pictures
Cast: Patrick Brammall, Alex Dimitriades, Abbey Lee, Harriet Dyer, Jeremy Sims, Brenton Thwaites, Aaron Bertram, Robyn Nevin, Jack Thompson
Writer/Director: Brendan Cowell
Producer: Kath Shelper
Executive Producers: Jonathan Duncan, Paul Wiegard, Nick Batzias, Brendan Cowell, David Gross, Laura Waters, Andrea Denholm
Director of Photography: Simon Harding
Production Designer: Robert Cousins
Costume Designer: Xanthe Heubel
Hair and Make Up Designer: Lara Jade Birch
Editor: Peter Crombie
Sound Designer: Liam Egan
Composer: Sarah Blasko
Casting Director: Kirsty McGregor
Sales: Madman

No rating, 94 minutes