An entertaining coming-of-age dramedy about a man-boy pushing 40, “Ruben Guthrie” centers on a boozy Sydney advertising hotshot who swears to stay off the sauce for a year to win back his fed-up fiancee. Adapting his highly successful stage play, writer-helmer Brendan Cowell neatly balances comic elements with sharp observations of how friendships between Aussie males are frequently underwritten by excessive alcohol consumption. Though the film isn’t as surefooted with female characters, its consistent good humor, non-preachy tone and strong cast of popular local thesps marks it as a solid crowdpleaser. Following its world premiere on opening night of the Sydney Film Festival, “Ruben” should perform strongly on July 16 domestic release. Though offshore theatrical prospects appear iffy, the pic could easily be tweaked for remakes.
Cowell wastes no time showing the hedonistic excesses of Ruben Guthrie (Patrick Brammall). The opening scene has him screaming “Let’s get smashed!” to a horde of hot-bodied party animals at his funky house in one of Sydney’s ultra-expensive seaside suburbs. From there he clambers on the roof and, just for the hell of it, plunges into his pool, avoiding death by a matter of inches.
The latest incident in Guthrie’s long history of irresponsible acts proves too much for his much younger fiancee, Zoya (Abbey Lee, impressive). A glamorous Czech model who’s been with Guthrie since she was a starstruck teenager, Zoya announces she’s leaving him and will be returning home to live with her mother in Prague after a photo shoot in Brazil. Most viewers will think Zoya’s making the right move, but at the same time will probably agree with her that beneath all that selfish recklessness there’s still a glimmer of something lovable about Ruben Guthrie. The result is an ultimatum whereby she’ll return in a year and offer him a second chance, provided he hasn’t touched a drop of abooze.
The screenplay rocks along nicely with dark humor and serious drama as Guthrie is hauled reluctantly into Alcoholics Anonymous by his no-nonsense mother, Susan (Robyn Nevin). In a very funny and very sad flashback sequence that’s marvelously cut by editor Peter Crombie and scored by composer Sarah Blasko. AA newcomer Guthrie delights in telling the group how he once missed a romantic dinner date with Zoya and wound up on a 24-hour booze-and-drug binge with strangers from all over the city. With Cowell’s focused writing and Brammall’s spot-on perf as an emotionally stunted guy who finally starts listening to himself and looking in the mirror, Guthrie slowly and convincingly comes to realise he’s got to bin the bottles and clean up his act. Providing an appealing assist throughout Guthrie’s transformation is Ken (Aaron Bertram), a older, roly-poly AA member with a wise and witty outlook on life before and after addiction.
Once committed to getting sober Guthrie’s work and friendships start to suffer. According to advertising company boss Ray (Jeremy Sims), Guthrie’s lost his edge and unless he gets back to partying ways pronto he’s in danger of losing clients, and more, to young gun Chet (Brenton Thwaites). It’s the same story when Guthrie’s flamboyant gay best friend Damian (Alex Dimitriades, excellent) moves into the house after his dream job in New York goes belly-up. The men practically come to blows when Guthrie refuses to drink, leaving both with a hollow feeling about what their friendship is actually founded on. Prompting further meaningful developments in Guthrie’s late-blooming maturity is dismay with his permanently sozzled father, Peter (Jack Thompson), a restaurant owner catering to Sydney’s moneyed elite who’s decided to shack up with one of his young kitchen hands.
While the screenplay excels in examinations of certain types of contemporary urban Australian males, its female characters are not as smoothly woven into the narrative. Having made the offer to return if her terms are met it seems odd that Zoya fails to return any of Guthrie’s many calls during her lengthy offscreen stretch. When he eventually falls into the arms of another woman it’s Virginia (Harriet Dyer), a sometimes laid-back, sometimes high-strung self-help group member whose dedication to expensive health foods and “let’s all connect with our emotions” dialogue is a tad cliched at times. The inevitable meeting of the two women in Guthrie’s confused life is executed in a slightly clumsy fashion that’s more in keeping with revolving-door theater than what’s cinematically preceded it here. From her early position as savior, mother Susan awkwardly changes track and encourages Guthrie to go back onto the booze in moderation. Still, these imperfections are hardly enough to make the show fall apart, and the film picks up impressively en route to a well-judged conclusion that’s bound to leave most viewers satisfied.
Sydney’s stunning natural beauty, chintzy glamour and illicit substance-fueled urban underbelly are memorably captured by d.p. Simon Harding. Visuals are at once a tourist advertisement and a cautionary commentary on the most brash, exciting and superficial Australian city. Production design by Robert Cousins gets the vibe of hipster lifestyles and cringingly “groovy” creative industry work spaces just right. All other technical contributions are on the money.