Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Ruben Guthrie (2015) - Movie Review

I can pretty vividly remember the first time I tasted alcohol; it was at my grandmother’s house when I was about 6 or 7. My uncle was drinking beer and he asked if I wanted to try it. Being the curious kid that I was, I accepted and took a very small sip… and given how I wasn’t even at the stage of being able to eat tomato sauce without gagging, chances were good that I wasn’t going to like it. Cut to several years later and I consider myself to be a social drinker, and by that I mean I drink about as often as I socially interact with people. I rarely drink as a result. I have gotten sloshed before, but I try and keep it to a minimum mostly due to costs, wanting to avoid as many Foster's jokes as possible when talking with friends overseas (Seriously, I've lived here my whole life and I haven't seen one can of it for sale) and the fact that I lack social grace even when sober. Still, it’s hard to ignore that a substantial element of Australian culture is swimming in all things fermented and carbonated, something that’s existent in most nations. So, what happens when someone takes a step back and looks at just how alcohol affects our social climate? Well, you get today’s film.

The plot: Ruben Guthrie (Patrick Brammall) is an ad executive living the party life… until a drunken jump into the pool from his roof (that he missed) became the last straw for his fiancĂ©e Zoya (Abbey Lee). The two agree that Ruben can come to see Zoya in Prague, provided that he can make it one year without drinking. Even with the help of AA groups, the pressures placed on him by family, friends and co-workers start to get to him and he begins to question the importance of his drinking.

A preliminary glance at things aren’t all that promising, and no, I’m not talking about the plot where a man questions if he is as capable at his job as he was when he was drinking, which is something we’ve covered before. Instead, what worries me mainly is Ruben’s job title as an ad exec; this is usually the go-to occupation in fiction for weaksauce Hollywood comedies as an excuse to plaster company logos all over the film for revenue. Of all the traits to copy from Adam Sandler films, if any, this is most certainly not one of them. There’s also a certain 'Very Special Episode' feel to the premise as well, like this is just going to be a mouthpiece for the writer to preach about the evils of alcohol and the people who imbibe it. I’ve made mention before about my zero-tolerance policy for pretence and the film as it is previewed in the trailer looks ready to set it off. Of course, that all changes once the film starts.

This film makes no attempt at espousing definitive answers when it comes to whether alcohol itself is bad, the best move that could be made in this situation. Instead, it serves up several slices of the whole picture from different perspectives: The social drinkers, party-goers, separate stages of recovering alcoholics, etc. We have Ruben’s parents Susan (Robyn Nevin) and Peter (Jack Thompson) serving as the social side, his flamboyant best friend Damian (Alex Dimitriades) as the rather hedonistic side of things and his AA sponsor Virginia (Harriet Dyer) and boss Ray (Jeremy Sims) as the former drinkers and they all have legitimate points to make. It’s kind of strange to see a script be this even-handed, especially considering the subject matter, but the dialogue serves everyone well. Given how this is adapted from a play, it’s understandable that the script would be a bit monologue-heavy which it very much is. That said, provided that this style of writing works for the viewer in a cinema setting, said monologues hit hard and hit often.

However, while their dialogue is well-handled, that doesn’t necessarily mean that any of the characters here are all that likeable; in fact, I dare say that no-one in this film comes across as entirely sympathetic, not even Ruben. Between obviously misguided views, rampant ego problems and the kind of 'free-spirited' hogwash that would make Joe Friday give a nine hour lecture, while everyone here may have something right to say, they also have a lot wrong to say as well. And yet, in a rare feat of screenwriting, this only makes the film better. At no point does it devolve into standard hateful characterisation that we’ve "enjoyed" in films like The Gallows, nor is it necessarily an Alex DeLarge situation where we end up empathising with these thoroughly unpleasant characters through the events that happen to them.

Instead, everyone is kept within the confines of reality. They may be people we don’t want to agree with on principle, but the fact that what they are saying can make perfect sense coupled with how these could easily be people who exist beyond the screen adds a lot to the film’s credibility. This is best exemplified by Ruben himself: He’s prideful, clings onto whatever support he can manage (be it alcohol or the endless regurgitating of AA philosophy) and is unable to properly face his issues at times, but he also has a major drive to make his life work no matter what and a real capacity to care about others that isn’t inhumanly perfect. His emotional baggage and psychological profile are on full display, as is everyone else’s, and flaws are portrayed as exactly what they are. It’s this kind of unflinching honesty about the attitudes of the characters that is unequivocally Australian.

Of course, this is all coming from someone who actively likes deconstructing characters in fiction, regardless of morality; Jane from Blue Jasmine might be one of my favourite characters in any medium, but that doesn’t mean I would relish the idea of spending time with her IRL. Even if these characters are realistically unlikable and still have their stable elements to them, that doesn’t change the simple fact that they are still grating to watch. As much as I consider the writing here to be leaps and bounds better than The Gallows, it shares a similar problem in that it reminds me of the people that I watch films to purposely avoid. Then again, given Brenton Thwaites’ turn as the Youtube star-turned-advertising personality Chet, methinks that the idea of people in life that actively make you want to drink is intentional. There’s also the characters who venture too far into the realm of annoying, like the aforementioned Damian as well as the hippie-esque Virginia; they still have their favourable traits like the others, but they stand out the most. Consider, also, that these two share a lot of screen time with Ruben and most of the key conflicts come from them, aside from Zoya, and this drags the film down a bit. By how much, exactly? Well, time for the wrap-up.

All in all, this is a complex character drama that looks at society’s relationship with alcohol without delving into PSA territory at any point. All the characters are fleshed-out and feel very real, perhaps a little too real as this includes the less favourable aspects of people as well, but the dialogue is still insightful and funny and director Brendan Cowell did a good job adapting his play to the big screen, keeping true to its roots while still translating the action on screen to fit the medium. Another win for Australian cinema, far as I’m concerned.

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