Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Brendan Cowell
Stars: Patrick Brammall, Abbey Lee, Alex Dimitriades, Robyn Nevin, Jack Thompson, Jeremy Sims, Harriet Dyer, Brenton Thwaites.
Brendan Cowell is a likeable enough character and is a familiar face through his work on stage, on television with appearances in Love Your Way, and through his film work. He has written and starred in films like the WWI drama Beneath Hill 60 and the cricket comedy Save Your Legs, and starred in Matthew Saville’s drama Noise, for which his performance won an Australian Film Critics Award. Cowell makes his feature film directorial debut with the bracing and honest black comedy Ruben Guthrie, a disappointing adaptation of his successful 2009 play which was based on his own battle with the bottle.
The film seemed like it was going to explores themes of masculinity and male bonding within the distinctly Australian cultural landscape. But Cowell’s adaptation of his own play is awful, and ranks as one of the worst Australian films released so far this year!
The landmark 1971 film Wake In Fright captured Australia’s toxic drinking culture as well as exploring themes of male bonding, that blokey culture of the outback, and the way in which men communicate or do not communicate. Cowell wanted to capture the same tone of that seminal film and explore the weird stuff that happens in Australia. Rather than the harsh and remote outback, Cowell set his film in middle class Sydney where they drink champagne, but he is still essentially exploring the same kind of wild ugliness. Films like Leaving Las Vegas, The Lost Weekend, Days Of Wine And Roses and 28 Days have also explored alcoholism and the toll it takes on those who try to kick their addiction, but they were much more powerful and engaging films with more of a social conscience.
Ruben Guthrie (played by Patrick Brammall, a familiar face on television through roles in Offspring and Upper Middle Bogan, etc) is a successful advertising executive with a serious alcohol problem. When we first meet him he is throwing a lavish party and is intent on “getting wasted.” But when he leaps drunkenly from the roof of his apartment into his swimming pool, breaking his arm in the process, it is too much for his Czech supermodel girlfriend Zoya (played by model Abbey Lee, recently seen in Mad Max: Fury Road). She promptly walks out on Ruben, saying that she will return in 12 months if he can give up the drink. It gives him a bit of a wake up call and he tries to turn his life around. He is reluctantly dragged off to an AA meeting by Zoya and his mother Susan (veteran Robyn nevin).
Ruben is a thoroughly obnoxious character at the start of the film. He gets into kayaking, and with the help of fellow AA sponsor Virginia (Harriet Dyer) he starts a regimen of new age foods and drinks. His healthy lifestyle seems to make him a more likeable person. But then he starts to dig up some stuff from the past, which his family are not so happy to hear about. But there are numerous temptations in his way, including his boss at the agency (played by Jeremy Sims) who thinks that Ruben has lost his edge and urges him to start drinking again, and the unexpected arrival back from of New York of his best friend Damien (Alex Dimitriades) a hard partying and hard drinking gay Greek lad.
Cowell has been able to assemble a solid cast, but he gives most of his performers little to work with. The characterisation here is pretty slim, and the character’s motivations and actions are sometimes a little difficult to fathom. For example, Ruben is giving up the drink so he can win back Zoya, but then he beds another woman in the vegan Virginia, who takes advantage of Ruben, which basically renders his mission to give up the drink redundant. And his mother Susan tires of his sobriety and urges him to have a drink of champagne at a birthday party, an act of betrayal that sets him off on a small binge with Damien and his parents.
Brammall is very good with a nicely energetic performance as the flawed Ruben, and he has a likeable screen presence. Zoya is the most interesting and fully developed character in the film, and Lee brings a bit of vitality to her performance. She is a determined woman who wants to get out of modelling, wants to get out of this dead end alcoholic relationship, and she wants to be a documentarian, to prove she’s more than just a pretty face.
Veterans Robyn Nevin and Jack Thompson play Ruben’s parents, both of whom seem to enjoy a drink as well. Thompson, whose role here provides another link to the classic Wake In Fright sleepwalks his way through his role, failing to invest much passion or depth to his character. Nevin fares a little better. Dimitriades’ Damien is little more than a caricature, a typical gay Greek boy whose hedonistic life and pursuit of pleasure reminded me of one of his earliest roles in the confronting Head On. Sims, who directed Cowell in Beneath Hill 60, turns in a shrill and over the top performance that lacks subtlety and nuance. And rising young star Brenton Thwaites is wasted in a thankless role as cocky young advertising whizz kid, but Cowell doesn’t give him much to do, nor does he use his character to develop any sense of tension with the jaded Ruben.
Much of the action takes place inside Ruben’s lavish and luxurious waterside house, with its well stocked bar, which does give it a claustrophobic feel. But Cowell has not been able to overcome much of the static staginess of the material’s theatrical origins here, and the film is dramatically dull and unevenly paced. It also lacks the requisite humour. And what may have worked on the stage often seems clunky here.
However, Cowell does occasionally open the action out, and the film looks good thanks to the superb cinematography of Simon Harding (who has worked on films like the epic The Hobbit trilogy, etc). Harding captures the beauty of the Sydney cityscape and makes it almost another character in the film. But for the most part this is a forgettable and unpleasant cinematic experience.
This is a wasted opportunity. Ruben Guthrie is a complete mess, and atonal. Its failings provided plenty of fuel for some heated discussions amongst fellow reviewers following a preview screening. Why should audiences care about Ruben Guthrie? Why should they spend their hard earned money on this underwhelming movie? Even a superstar advertising executive like Ruben himself would have a hard time trying to sell this film to the public.