Ruben Guthrie is the directorial debut of Australian playwright and actor Brendan Cowell. Based on Cowell’s own stage play of the same name, Ruben Guthrie is a story of one man’s redemption from alcoholism while examining the alcoholic nature of Australian society.
Coming off a consecutive win for best advertisement, party boy Ruben Guthrie’s (Patrick Brammal) drunken shenanigans lead him to injury when he decides to jump from the roof at his alcohol fuelled house party. When his model fiancé, Zoya (Abbey Lee), becomes finally fed up with his partying ways and decides to return home to the Czech Republic, she gives him one last chance to remain sober for an entire year or lose her forever.
While Ruben seems committed to abstaining from drinking, it’s actually his family and friends that struggle with his decision the most. Continuously challenging him to return to his former drunken fun-loving self, even his parents (Robyn Nevin and Jack Thompson) seem naively unwilling to believe that Ruben has a problem that can’t be solved with simply just not drinking as much. While oblivious to his alcoholism, this support network of flawed characters seems to really only have their own shortcomings put on display as Ruben attempts to succeed.
While offering some strong performances, especially from Brammal, the main dilemma of the film is that there doesn’t appear to be much of a balance in keeping any of these tragic characters likeable. While Ruben is obviously meant to seem detestable due to his drunken antics earlier on, there never comes a moment where it appears there’s actually someone worth rooting for behind those bloodshot eyes. Even Harriet Dyer’s version of a manic pixie dream girl, Virginia, isn’t given enough material to make her likeable enough before becoming more of an obnoxious nightmare that you’d rather just be gotten rid of.
This makes Ruben’s emotional journey all the more challenging to be invested in, as it’s hard to care whether or not he can keep away from the bottle when there isn’t that much of a difference between him being sober and off the wagon. Not to mention that all of the relationships in his life seem so toxic, bar perhaps Aaron Bertram’s fellow AA meeting pal (although his storyline is so limited and inconsequential that it perhaps doesn’t count at all), that it would seem cleaning the slate and starting fresh would be the only smart option.
Stuck between being a charming Australian independent and an outlandish commercial comedy, Ruben Guthrie doesn’t seem to exactly know what type of film it wants to be. There are some truly funny one-liners sprinkled throughout but their placement, and often their delivery, in a scene, makes it seem like the more comedic elements were stuck in later without regard to how they would fit into the tone of the overall film.
In a similar way, the more dramatic moments, mainly those where characters reveal (or really just blurt out) their inner most turmoils, seem to come out of left field without any real build up and feel awkwardly forced. For instance, early in the film when Ruben goes to the more alternative style AA meeting for the first time, it’s only a matter of minutes before he turns from being a pent up cynic unable to share to pouring his heart out about the death of a childhood friend that initially began his alcohol abuse.
While these beats should be earnest character moments, they feel so obvious and exposed that when they do occur, they consistently feel like Cowell is almost signalling to the audience that an important bit of drama is unfolding and we should all pay attention. These moments though would likely seem more appropriate performed on stage, which would obviously be due to the films adaptation from the stage play. The experience of having an actor perform on stage in front of you grants a sort of personal connection that lets characters spew out overly monologue-like dialogue and forgives switching between drama and comedy so abruptly because the performance is literally alive. But on screen it just feels disjointed and makes for mediocre filmmaking.
While enjoyable for the most part and offering a rarely focused on look into the problems of Australian alcoholism, Ruben Guthrie will probably have most audiences checking their watches midway through trying to work out how many minutes are left until he will relapse and then how long they’ll have to wait until the credits roll.
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