RELEASE DATE: 16/07/2015
RUN TIME: 1HR 33MIN
Ruben Guthrie (Patrick Brammall) is delivered an ultimatum. A wildly successful ad man and raging party boy, he ends up breaking his arm during a drunken stunt jumping into his pool. His fiancée Zoya (Abbey Lee) has had enough of his constant boozy state and leaves him with this - spend a year totally sober and then come and find her in her home in Poland. Determined to get Zoya back, Ruben takes on the challenge - one that throws his life upside down and challenges every significant relationship he has.
The premise suggests what we’re about to get is a dissection of Australian drinking culture, especially in relation to our volatile concept of masculinity, but ends up being a rather obnoxious and erratic mess that can’t seem to decide what it wants to be about. Instead of sympathising with Ruben, we end up just pitying him, not just because of the stupid decisions he makes but because it all just seems too easy for him. He exists in a kind of heightened fantasy world where everyone around him is driven by nothing but alcohol, from his awful parents (Robyn Nevin and Jack Thompson) to his non-drinking boss Ray (Jeremy Sims) to his flat-out offensive gay best friend Damian (Alex Dimitriades). When he turns for solace from Alcoholics Anonymous, we’re shown them as some sort of hippie cult rather than a legitimate support network. In a film dealing with an alcoholic as its central character, the last thing you expect is to discover the film is actually on the side of alcohol. The complex Australian idea of masculinity and our rampant drinking culture are not dissected or discussed anywhere near enough (other than maybe to suggest that men have problems too and Australians drink a lot), and what makes this more aggravating is that there’s so much scope for this. Cowell’s writing is generally pretty terrific, balancing bracing humour and occasionally brutal honesty, but his direction is tonally inconsistent and rhythmically erratic. Perhaps this kind of commentary is actually at the heart of the film, but the technical filmmaking itself has muddied it in an attempt to make the film more appealing. It panders to the worst tendencies of Australian film, to water down intelligent or bracing ideas to make it more commercial.
Thank goodness for Patrick Brammall. The film might suffer from mountains of flaws and ill-conceived decisions, but Brammall delivers an absolutely spectacular performance as Ruben. His work is intelligent and detailed, hilarious and heartbreaking and oozing with charm and charisma. It’s a rare gift to be both tremendously masculine and fearlessly childish at the same time, and still demonstrate immense talent. This is the kind of star-making turn this terrific actor has been in need of, and probably the biggest reason to see the film. Abbey Lee is also great as Zoya (the only likeable woman in the film), but Harriet Dyer isn’t anywhere near as likeable as Ruben’s sponsor Virginia, who ends up taking advantage of his vulnerability. Robyn Nevin has a lot of fun as Ruben’s mother Susan (and delivers the most disturbing image in the film), but both she and Thompson as Ruben’s father Peter never seem to escape caricature.
The biggest problem is Alex Dimitriades as Damien, who is nothing more than a frustrating and unexpectedly shallow gay stereotype that borders on homophobic. He’s a drunken, drug-addled, over-sexed and obnoxious reptile, the kind of gay character we really need to leave behind. Apart from Brammall and Lee, everyone in the film seems to think that bigger is better, and the consistency over-the-top quality of the performances must also come down to Cowell’s direction. It further confuses the tone of the film, so you aren’t sure whether to like these people or be repulsed by them. The only actor who nails this kind of Looney Tunes quality is Brenton Thwaites as up-and-coming ad man and YouTube celebrity Chet, who is so funny and on-point that he walks away with every scene he’s in.
Instead of sympathising with Ruben, we end up just pitying him, not just because of the stupid decisions he makes but because it all just seems too easy for him.
I really wanted to be on side with ‘Ruben Guthrie’, and kept trying to find a way to get past its failings and missteps. I wanted to feel sympathy for Ruben, to cheer him on and stand in his corner. In the end though, I just couldn’t get there. ‘Ruben Guthrie’ is a loud and erratic film handling many important subjects without ever committing to saying anything about them. Brendan Cowell has delivered a great piece of writing, but his work behind the camera doesn’t support it and most of the cast completely miss the mark. It even has a baffling final moment totally unsupported by everything that came before it and an aggravating score from Sarah Blasko. Patrick Brammal saves the day with his terrific performance as Ruben, but in the end the film is as annoying and obnoxious as the loud, drunk and idiotic men that have come to define Australian masculinity, but without the irony it so very desperately needed.