Sydney Film Festival Review: Ruben Guthrie (Australia, 2015)

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Note: This review contains some spoilers of the film and the original play.

“How brave of you to stop drinking alcohol in this alcoholic country” – Zoya (Abbey Lee)

With a penchant for young girls, alcohol and most of life’s vices (as well as a “me before you” attitude), Ruben Guthrie isn’t a particularly likeable guy. But from the film’s opening scenes, with “Parlez-Vous Francais?” by Sydney’s Art vs Science booming in the background, it feels like we may have met a character we can love to loathe, in a similar vein to DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort (Wolf of Wall Street) or Duchovny’s Hank Moody (Californication). And for the first half an hour, it seems we’re on a similar ride. But it’s a stamina that the film struggles to maintain, ultimately leaving us to ask: why should we care about Ruben? But maybe that’s the point.

Directed and written by Brendan Cowell as an adaptation of his own Belvoir St Theatre play of the same name, Ruben Guthrie follows the titular character (played powerfully by Patrick Brammall) – a success in the world of advertising – as he attempts a year without alcohol in order to win back his fiancée after breaking his arm in an alcohol fueled frenzy (all that was missing was him screaming “I am a golden god!” at the top of his lungs). It’s not something he deserves sympathy for, and he does little to earn any afterwards.

The first third of the film holds most of the stand out moments. The intense party scene that opens the film, with a clever title sequence embodying the world of advertising, sucks you right into his world. Guthrie’s first scenes in treatment – which follow closely behind – are nothing short of brilliant. It’s one of the few times in the film that we see Guthrie as a vulnerable (rather than selfish) character, reflecting on his past moments of excess, while denying he is an alcoholic (humorously standing up and declaring something along the lines of “I am in advertising!”), eventually opening up about the moment he started drinking to excess.

What follows is his struggle with saying no to the drink, as almost everyone in his life – from his advertising boss (Jeremy Sims), to his best mate (Alex Dimitriades) and even his parents (Robyn Nevin and Jack Thompson) – literally try to pour alcohol (and other things) down his throat in what his Czech partner Zoya (Abbey Lee, currently also seen in Mad Max: Fury Road) accurately describes as an “alcoholic country”. The entry of a new romantic interest (Harriet Dyer) just seems to make things worse for Guthrie, though Dyer is pretty brilliant in the role; her addiction to showers proving a nice touch. But there comes a point where it’s clear that almost all of the film’s characters (except, I should note, the adorable Ken, played well by Aaron Bertram) are flawed and reasonably unlikeable.

As it is for the titular character, ultimately the film’s downfall isn’t in its unlikeable characters – for they are entertaining to say the least – but rather, it’s in its reliance on the alcohol motif to progress the storyline. And it boils down to this: How many minutes of a film can be devoted to a man saying no to alcohol? The point is made clear: his world without excess becomes just as excessive, though dulled, and those around him (and, perhaps Australia in general) makes the whole process a difficult one. And you can take with that what you will. But the point is drilled home too strongly.

Indeed, Guthrie’s world is dulled but the problem is that it also dulls the film. I’m told the original 2009 play featured more moments where the character reflects on his past, and this would have worked well to improve the flow. We need to see more of the man at his “worst” – because where he’s at right now doesn’t seem that much better (and, again, this is likely the point, but it still doesn’t negate the need for variety). Even though it picks up again in the final third, leaving us on a cliffhanger that the play otherwise resolved, it struggles to renew the pace set in the film’s opening scenes.

But beyond the flaws in its thematic execution, Cowell has produced a technically sound film, proving a more than capable director in his debut. The performances are stellar and the film is far from being without its hilarious moments – this is a solid dark comedy at its core with an excellent script. The score, primarily orchestrated by Sydney’s Sarah Blasko with a band that included the likes of Laurence Pike of PVT and Cowell himself on the harmonica, is fantastic and adds well to the film. The cinematography – partly, perhaps, provided by Destination NSW (our tourism body) who along with the likes of Lexus provided some obvious funding for the film – is stunning, and Sydney has rarely looked better. Cowell has done a fine job of capturing the Eastern suburbs lifestyle, as well as the beauty that the area and the greater city provides his film. And in spite of some of the thematic challenges, Peter Crombie’s editing paces the film nicely.

Ruben Guthrie worked well as a play – as acclaimed as it was – and it may have even made a strong ABC miniseries. But as a 90 minute film, it struggled to capture the sort of excitement that had been promised in its premise. However, strong performances, witty dialogue and stand out production throughout still made it a thoroughly enjoyable film and a worthwhile production.

Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Ruben Guthrie premiered as the Sydney Film Festival Opening Night Gala yesterday, and has another screening at the State Theatre on Monday 8 June at 2pm.