Review: Perhaps You Need To Be Drunk To Enjoy Brendan Cowell’s ‘Ruben Guthrie’

Perhaps Ruben Guthrie makes more sense if you watch it while drunk. Being sober, I loathed it.

Perhaps Ruben Guthrie makes more sense if you watch it while drunk. Being sober, I loathed it. And in saying this, I’m not knee-jerking against its unpleasant characters, their sordid antics, or the all-pervasive misogyny. Writer/director Brendan Cowell is clearly using this ugliness to critique Australia’s binge-drinking culture, its toxic, entitled masculinity, and Sydney’s soulless obsession with social status.

What makes Ruben Guthrie a bad film, however, is that it doesn’t even work on its own terms. As social critique, it’s facile and self-satisfied, glamorising the things it claims to condemn. Its ideas about alcohol use and masculinity are confused and incoherent, and its jarring corporate product placement fatally undermines its gestures to a meaningful life beyond consumerism.

Its artificial, stagey tone is particularly disorienting. As comedy, Ruben Guthrie is diabolically unfunny; but the script has a brittle, obnoxious quality that was perhaps intended as farce. You can see how its self-conscious talkiness and its reliance on symbolism might have worked in its original incarnation, as a 2008 Belvoir Theatre production. But on film, that same talkiness and symbolism comes across as simplistic and heavy-handed, clashing woozily with the gorgeous Sydney locations and the earnest mood of soul-searching, complete with a mournful Sarah Blasko soundtrack.

This Isn’t Really A Story About Drinking

Our eponymous adman antihero (Patrick Brammall, looking uncannily like a younger Brendan Cowell, who loosely based the play on his own battle with booze) swears off alcohol for a year. But drinking isn’t Ruben Guthrie’s real problem – it’s that he’s an awful person, surrounded by awful people whose drinking, likewise, doesn’t adequately explain their awfulness.

Ruben Guthrie might legitimately ask himself, “Who am I when I’m not drinking?” But the film isn’t really interested. At his lowest moments, other characters buck him up by reminding him, “You’re Ruben Guthrie!” But repeating the protagonist’s full name a lot can’t substitute for actual characterisation. At the end of the film he’s just as petulant, solipsistic and passive-aggressive as before, yet somehow we’re expected to sympathise with his ‘journey’.

Nor is the film especially interested in the struggles of problem drinkers. It makes sobriety look pretty easy. You just make yourself a really nice lemon, lime and bitters, belittle fellow drinkers’ struggles, go kayaking with a cuddly bloke (Aaron Bertram), recite a tearful monologue about your mate who committed suicide – who is never mentioned again – and hey presto!

What Ruben Guthrie finds hard, however, is resisting the pressure to drink from everyone else around him. Perhaps on stage, the supporting characters presented as satirical. But this film has a much more earnest vibe, asking audiences to take Ruben Guthrie seriously as an emblem of a real Australian social problem. And it undermines this goal by surrounding him with one-note joke characters whose actions never ring true.

There’s Ruben Guthrie’s boorish boss Ray (Jeremy Sims), who thinks his protégé needs to be drunk to be creative, and the obnoxious young douchebag Chet (Brenton Thwaites) gunning for his job. His restaurateur dad Peter (Jack Thompson) owlishly begs his son to share “a bloody drink”, while his mum Susan (Robyn Nevin) literally forces wine down his throat. His gay best friend, Damian (Alex Dimitriades), meanwhile, is like the outrageously sassy devil on Ruben Guthrie’s shoulder.

Actual alcohol recedes oddly into the background. It’s just props and set dressing: a visual metaphor for selfish, callous behaviour. It’s a splashy liquid to be held up in glasses and bottles that are then grimly swigged or petulantly dashed to the ground. Ruben Guthrie’s living room is dominated by a vast display of bottles, including a row of nightclub-style beer fridges. Not because anyone would plausibly have such an installation in their home, but to signal that This Guy Has A Problem.

Maybe these visual cues worked better on stage, where sets and props operate figuratively and synecdochically. But in the naturalistic medium of film, they’re insultingly obvious.

It Fails To Understand Men And Doesn’t Even Try To Understand Women

A constant thread in Cowell’s writing is a toxic Australian masculinity that seems to require the sexual exploitation of women. But Cowell’s sympathies have always been firmly with men; women are fetishised trophies or contemptible sluts. Ruben Guthrie is no different.

In another lazy, heavy-handed visual cue, a gigantic mural of Ruben Guthrie’s creepily much-younger fiancée Zoya (Abbey Lee), a Czech model, dominates one wall of Ruben Guthrie’s coldly minimalist harbourside mansion. Geddit? She’s his reason for going sober.

Ruben Guthrie doesn’t appear to want to quit drinking under his own steam. And why would he? Cowell shoots the boozy montage scenes like slick advertisements, making drunken excess look attractive and funny – even Ruben Guthrie’s arm-fracturing leap from his roof into his swimming pool. Nope, what motivates Ruben Guthrie to quit is an arbitrary command from Zoya to “come and find me” after twelve months of sobriety.

This premise makes no sense. Ruben Guthrie’s contempt for Zoya is underlined at every opportunity. He stands her up on her 21st birthday dinner; he belittles her eating disorder; when she finally leaves him, he snarls, “You’re going to die in the fucking snow, chewing on your own hips!” So why on earth would her good opinion matter to him?

Don’t think too hard about it; the film has to get rolling somehow, and Zoya’s a convenient plot device. Making her the reward for his sobriety enables Ruben Guthrie to do things like abusing her in voicemail speeches, or throwing his computer at the mural when he sees another dude in Zoya’s Facebook photos.

Ruben Guthrie also despises his father for leaving Susan for a young Asian kitchenhand (Elly Oh), and Susan for taking Peter back upon realising she’s too old and ugly to find anyone else. But the film’s treatment of Ruben Guthrie’s free-spirited sponsor-with-benefits, Virginia (Harriet Dyer), is perhaps the most distasteful.

She’s introduced in ‘home group’, mooning dreamily over Ruben Guthrie, then the camera gets right up in her crotch from behind as she swims, underlining the sophomoric connotations of her name; Ruben Guthrie only wants what’s between her legs.

Virginia is depicted as shrill and emotionally manipulative, moving into Ruben Guthrie’s house, spending his money on ridiculous hippie food, trying to control his life. While Virginia is struggling with addiction and childhood abuse, the film chooses to gloss over these as a source of comedy – especially her frequent ”shame showers” – saving its empathy for Ruben Guthrie.

The dismal script gives its actors very little to work with, though they try valiantly. Alex Dimitriades is clearly best in show; the preeningly vicious Damian is by far the most interesting character here. He’s also crashing at Ruben Guthrie’s house after returning in disgrace from New York, and he takes pleasure in taunting recovering addict Virginia.

It’s only really through the character of Damian that the film reaches a shred of insight into why men might use alcohol to create intimacy. Drunk or sober, Ruben Guthrie has the same disrespect for women; but booze grants him a relaxed closeness with his best friend, that Damian at one point mistakes as sexual.

The film ends on yet another theatrically loaded moment, as Ruben Guthrie is handed a glass of champagne on his flight to meet Zoya. (This trip makes no sense; why would she be at all pleased to see him?) Will he drink it? Will he leave it alone? Will you care? I didn’t. It’s just another way this film reads as phony. We never see Ruben Guthrie become a better man, but this film wants us to admire Ruben Guthrie for even trying – while blaming everyone around him for his weaknesses.

Ruben Guthrie is in cinemas now.

For an alternative take, read Dee Jefferson’s review in our Sydney Film Festival round-up.

Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and cultural critic. She blogs on style, history and culture at Footpath Zeitgeist and tweets at@incrediblemelk