Hedonistic adman Ruben Guthrie with his latest ‘ad’ award in one hand and a bottle of champers in the other lives in a minimalist harbour side mansion where his lifestyle is a case of everything in excess, an opposing idea to the house’s design. What’s not to like, he’s as handsome as all get out, wealthy, worshipped by colleagues who all think he’s awesome, wildly successful and much lauded in the advertising industry as being ‘smart’.
Reuben Guthrie only sees himself as a ‘fair dinkum’ Aussie bloke, decked out in designer suits and ties, living the good life in a piece of prime real estate. Ruben’s problem, oops I must say ‘challenge’, is a common one down under, where in many aspects of our society, people are seemingly judged personally on the amount of booze they consume.
As played by Patrick Brammell Reuben, despite being such a damaged screwed up self-centred individual, he is immensely likeable.
It did beg the thought while I was watching the film that for Brammell the sky could really be his limit and the world his oyster in terms of his acting career after this. As a performance, his is top notch.
He is totally believable as the truly awful adman who craves admiration and being at the centre of attention, but whose life is really only about the sum total of the people he surrounds himself with.
They all have their own agendas and are very willing to prey on his easy going nature, success and wealth.
Reuben likes being ‘popular’. Who doesn’t? But is there any substance at all behind that handsome facade? Ruben seems to have no plan for the future, except to follow now outmoded ‘stereotypes’.
Society is always changing Ruben and if you keep adjusting to its format, instead of setting your own path and staying the course, it will come back at you and slap you down.
Once you are down at the bottom of despair you soon discover what hell is really all about, inner loneliness.
Ruben’s not really coping with the fact he may need to really go dry and, for the rest of his life.
If he doesn’t then he might just find himself dead at a young age, literally drowning in his own swimming pool and stupidity.
Since WW II alcohol being the ‘measure of a man’ seemingly hasn’t changed at all.
Now, however rather than just being a beer with the boys at the pub after work soaked one, it’s moved up a notch into a far more glamorous gourmet wine, champagne and caviar infested wealthy scene.
If Ruben does want a better life, one enriched by people who care then it’s up to Ruben himself to change his ways. No one else can do it for him. First however, he has to get sober – so how hard can it be?
Very, he soon discovers. Especially when everyone around you encourages you to keep on drinking otherwise you are not proving that you are who they all want you to be.
Ruben believes his ‘lucky’ streak will continue ad infinitum that the clients of his ad company will miraculously remain loyal and that others will seek his personal company well into the future
Alcohol dependence is increasingly an attitude in Australia that as a nation, we all need to come to terms with.
As the film opens we discover Reuben during one of the wild parties he regularly throws at home. The only sticks of furniture in this concrete based interior are covered in copious bottles of every type of booze imaginable and there is no couch to sit on.
He becomes completely stoned, jumps off his roof and nearly dies at the bottom of his swimming pool with all the ‘cool’ people looking on’. If that doesn’t ring alarm bells what will? It certainly sets off the final alarm for his girlfriend Zoya.
Like all egocentric ‘drunks’ Ruben is suspending reality, believing he is ‘in control’ and that he is not like the rest of the people in his group session, whom he sees as losers in tracksuits.
Already as shallow as the shoals on the harbour he overlooks, Ruben Guthrie then becomes a sanctimonious hypocrite as well.
His promise to go dry, for at least a year made to his fiancée Zoya (Abbey Lee), who threatens to leave unless he promises, is the one he finds hardest to take seriously, reaching for a ‘drink’ to celebrate the first AA meeting he attends.
So after six years she goes, and as she’s only about 21 it also brings up ethical questions never explored.
The question for Ruben is does he always want to appear a ‘loser’ or does he really want to forge a new road for himself, one that honours and respects his own persona.
Not ever asking himself the question why he embraces such totally self destructive behaviour he suddenly finds himself at the centre of a personal place he finds it hard to negotiate, one where he’s expected to have the courage of his convictions.
Not unsurprisingly he all but crumbles under the weight of such newfound responsibilities, proving he’s not as in control of his life as he purports to be.
But there is a change taking place, and once you know what its like to not feel ‘smashed’ all the time, having embraced some of the concepts of Alcohol Anonymous (AA) for over 300 days, then life and your outlook becomes very different indeed.
Ruben soon realises he has a lot of sorting out to do especially with his best mate and his own parents who want him to just ‘fit in’ with everyone else, and that means drinking hard at functions they attend together like the races, en Famille.
Parents are never meant to be crutches, but people who give you the basic skills to live your life with regard and respect for yourself and your fellow man. Then it’s up to you to learn and grow within and without yourself as you age.
Ruben’s parents sadly no matter how smart or successful they look have failed miserably.
His mother played stylishly by Robyn Nevin is supportive of Reuben, at least in the first instance as she accompanies him to his first meeting.
He doesn’t know it yet, but she’s thinking that if she helps him to gets off the juice for a while it will teach him to drink in moderation, perhaps with a ‘glass of water in between’.
That’s what she does to fit in and suit the company she keeps. One of them has to stay sober enough to drive the rest of them all home.
Her husband is a hard drinking womanising restaurateur, and as channeled by Jack Thompson, is pissed to his eyeballs most of the time.
He’s just run off with the Korean kitchen hand and left his wife high, but not quite dry, yet.
When she’s had enough of Reuben’s now sanctimonious preaching about her lack of support for his predicament however, she counters by pouring a glass of wine down his throat, addicting him once more.
Both parents are in denial of their own drinking reality and about Reuben’s real medical plight, with the Doctor’s advising alcoholism is a disease.
That means for people like Ruben even a mouthful of alcohol after going sober is enough to bring them down.
They are not helping Reuben one bit or supporting him as they should. As he slowly realises that he has to stay his own course and decide who he’s going to be, its a painful journey.
After all the thing he needs to come to terms with the most is that he is supposed to be an adult with some maturity of thought and by now at least, meant to have worked out a philosophy on how to live life on his own terms.
Reuben at first succeeds handsomely for nearly the whole year, with the help of two people from AA who prop him up; there is the very confused vegan Virginia with her green hair (Harriet Dyer) and the kindly accommodating Ken (Aaron Bertram) from his Tamarama Group.
Ken becomes his sponsor and kayaking buddy, taking Ruben on rides around the river to the harbour in Sydney where life gently flows by in peaceful solitude. A taste of the great outdoors is a great healer and Ken also contributes gentle words of wisdom. We all want to give him a hug.
Reuben’s however discovered Harriet is also a great cook, so he’s moved her in, using her to feed himself by mouth during the day and at night sexually, while all the while leaving despairing messages on the phone for his supermodel fiancée he professes to love.
These are very ‘screwed up people’, one and all.
Zoya’s massive larger than life photograph in his kitchen proves ‘she’s the one’, although Harriet seems to just ignore it, but then that’s because she’s using Reuben to fulfill her own lopsided fantasies.
She gets him to buy a couch so must be having some effect although sadly Ruben notes, she’s turning into a harridan.
Then there is his truly awful boss at the ad agency (Jeremy Sims) whose freaking out and his sole objective is to get his star player Ruben, who brings in all the money, back onto the turps.
He brings on board a thoroughly unlikeable youthful individual named Chet to stir Reuben’s pot. Played by Brenton Thwaites, his is a truly repugnant personality.
Ruben’s gay best mate who comes to stay is Damian (Alex Dimitriades) who illuminates the screen when he’s on it. They have known each other since schooldays and he’s also abusing his best mate’s hospitality while teasingly keeping Reuben totally confused about his own sexuality, based on childhood experiences at boarding school. Let’s not go there.
It is not hard by now to understand that Reuben Guthrie has a lot to contend with. However by now we’re also nearly drowing by the weight of it all.
Written by Brendan Cowell Ruben Guthrie the movie is a story that has been produced numerous times on stage by Cowell to mixed critical reviews, which as a movie it has as well. It was to my mind, despite its slick and often clever dialogue, trite.
Certainly the behaviour and gruesomeness of some of the characters were hard to take and it was also hard to know if this was intentional.
If these are ‘caricatures’ of real people today in corporate life, then God help us all.
It is a storyline that really hits a nerve; resonating and highlighting how easily alcohol can and will take over people’s lives, prompted by Cowell’s personal experience of struggling with sobriety and probably most of our own if we are honest.
What I didn’t like was that it supported the view creativity can only exist if we are all pissed. How depressing.
It’s like the idea people can only enjoy themselves if they are drinking, which is also just poppycock.
The end result; Suddenly we find him sitting in first class on a Qantas jet on his sixteenth day of his once again new found sobriety, heading off to find Zoya. In the meantime she has come back and discovered all the people living under his roof and feeding on him like leeches and has understandably, fled once more.
Suddenly a glass of champagne is placed temptingly on his tray by the 1st class hostess who believes she knows what he likes, after all Ruben Guthrie is most likely a mile high club regular.
We are left NOT knowing however, which way he’s going to choose.
This is a movie whose fine ensemble cast give it their best. The writer-director Brendan Cowell had a great opportunity to flush out a worrying social issue but chooses to remain on the surface, much like his main man.
Ruben Guthrie in many ways should be essential viewing and a wake up call for all Australians.
It will and certainly should make many people squirm, bringing us up front and personal to examine just how we deal best with our ‘celebrated’ and perish the thought, perhaps even our now ‘iconic’ rampant drinking culture.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015
Distributed by Madman
Director Brendan Cowell
Players: Patrick Brammall, Alex Dimitriades, Abbey Lee, Harriet Dyer, Jeremy Sims, Robyn Nevin, Jack Thompson, Brenton Thwaites, Billy Thompson +