Words By: Jack Dawson
Ruben Guthrie is a frustrating film to talk about, because I should like it. It’s an Australian production with stylish editing, beautiful choreography, and one of the best performances I’ve seen in a while. And yet what emerges is a muddled mess of grand intentions brought low by a truly unlikeable main character, wrapped up in a poor translation from stage to screen.
So let’s get this over with and grab a stiff drink afterwards.
Ruben Guthrie is a living legend in advertising; witty, caustic, and capable of downing an entire tanker of whiskey every Saturday night. But his Fiancé is (understandably) tired of having to deal with the drunken waste he’s become, and leaves him with the promise that if he gives up alcohol for an entire year she will return to him. So he begins an entire year of quitting alcohol cold turkey, navigating his way through intense peer pressure and the peculiarities of Alcoholics Anonymous.
So I’ll start off with the niceties. This film looks very nice, partly thanks to the beautiful location, partly due to its emphasis on the wealthier half, and partly due to the excellent choreography and editing. When I said earlier that Ruben Guthrie was poorly translated from stage to screen, I was talking about the acting and some of the writing choices. This is a film that takes full advantage of the capabilities of the medium, and there are a lot of cool tricks and design choices that pay off. The opening in particular is just perfect, it fits the tone and content of the film like a glove and immediately grabs your interest.
And Patrick Brammall turns in a magnificent and involved performance as Ruben Guthrie. It’s replete with tiny details and quirks and Brammall fully inhabits the character. It’s just a shame that it’s such an unlikeable character.
Now I don’t require all main characters to be likeable, but when a film bases its entire premise on how likeable the protagonist is without his addiction to alcohol, it follows that Ruben Guthrie must have some redeeming characteristics. He does not. When Ruben’s Fiancé declared: “I love you. The real you…” I almost laughed. Because while Ruben is dangerous and unlikeable while inebriated, he’s whiny and really unlikeable while sober. He makes nasty cracks at the people closest to him, is overly aggressive and bitter towards his contemporaries, and slips into self-righteousness when he’s enthusiastic about sobriety.
Now it’s true that a recovering alcoholic surrounded by the materialistic artifices of the Advertising Industry might have some growth to undergo, but Ruben can’t even claim any meaningful character development. He learns nothing, and is still demonstrating the bitter and self-destructive tendencies he possessed as an alcoholic. But all of this could have been redeemed by an insightful and accomplished script.
Key word being ‘could have’.
My biggest issue with this film’s script is easily the ending. There’s nothing meaningful in its nihilism, nothing that satisfies us after having had to watch such unlikeable characters on screen, and nothing that makes me ever want to see it again. But that ending only falls apart due to the numerous other issues that build up throughout the rest of the film, most notably the rather backhanded depiction fo support groups. On the one hand they are built up as an inclusive and effective tool for recovering alcoholics, and on the other they are decried as a pretentious group of hacks who just swap out one dependency for another.
I wouldn’t mind a nuanced response to support groups and how effective they are, but this hour and a half film isn’t really up to the task of providing such a portrayal. The result is a film with less meaningful commentary than that one episode of South Park where Randy is diagnosed with Alcoholism and a statue of the Virgin Mary begins squirting blood from her unmentionables (It’s classy stuff, and a good lesson in how to argue your own point, aggressively and without much in the way of subtlety).
And the final nail in the coffin is the awkward change from stage to screen. This mostly manifests in some of the acting choices and story structure, particularly some of the more presentational elements of Ruben’s journey. The flamboyant and borderline-problematic gay friend Damian is a good example, his particular brand of loud and extensive acting is pitch perfect for the stage, but comes across as off-putting and distracting in film. Even the gestures and movements some
actors make seem awkward for film, with dishonourable mention going to both the constant tongue gestures and the action that begins Ruben’s return to debauchery in the final act. And some of Ruben’s choices and dialogue are either insensible or just off-putting, but would make sense in a more presentational style on the stage where our sense of reality is already suspended.
I hesitate to call Ruben Guthrie a terrible film, but I certainly wouldn’t call it a good one either. There are aspects that I like about it, and I honestly hope that the actors and crew go onto bigger and better things. There have been worse films released this year (hello 50 Shades of Grey and Clouds of Sils Maria), but there have certainly been better ones. I’d still recommend you go see it, it’s not tortuously long at 90 Minutes and any kind of Australian film this well made on a technical level is worth appreciating.