Ruben Guthrie kicks off with a bang – a glamourous awards after-party at a sprawling waterfront Sydney home, with an open bar and shimmering pool.
Ad man Ruben (played by Patrick Brammal) feels on top of the world. He’s ticking all the boxes – rich, successful, with a Czech supermodel as his fiancee (Abbey Lee). He feels so good in fact, that he jumps off his balcony, aiming for his pool and misses… well kind of misses.
With his arm in a sling, he’s given an ultimatum by his fiancee Zoya: go one year without drinking and get another chance. Which is when we start to see beneath Ruben’s – and Australian society’s – shiny veneer.
Ruben Guthrie holds up a mirror to Australian audiences and the result is not always a comfortable one. Australians typically love their booze, whether it’s a glass of white with lunch, a champagne toast, a beer with mates or a night on the sauce. Binge-drinking seems to not only be encouraged in Australian culture, but celebrated.
However, the reaction to those who choose not to drink is both surprising and quite baffling.
After initially supporting Ruben’s little dalliance with sobriety, his friends, boss, and even parents do a swift about-turn, repeatedly asking him to have a drink with them.
It’s shocking, but what’s most shocking, is how common that scenario is for Australians.
It’s loosely based on writer/director Brendan Cowell’s own experience giving up alcohol for a year, which led to him losing friends and his social life taking a hit. Cowell even developed tips for anyone who doesn’t want to be pestered about drinking (one: to ask for a soda water with ice and a lime, so people assume it’s a vodka soda and leave you alone).
“How brave of you to stop drinking in this alcoholic country,” Zoya says in the film.
A close friend of mine gave up drinking and what she noticed most, was how uncomfortable is made others feel. Friends would pester her, saying, “when are you going to start drinking again? It was so much fun when you drank.” It’s as if being around sober people, 1) makes others feel guilty about wanting a drink and 2) makes them realise how much they need a drink to have fun. So they push their own insecurities outward.
A small comfort is that these attitudes might either be changing, or young people are comfortable enough not to let peer pressure get to them. A new study has shown the proportion of teens abstaining from alcohol altogether has more than doubled, from 28 per cent in 2001 to 57.3 per cent in 2013.
However, for Australians over 40, drinking is still problematic, and heavy drinking is still stable among young adults, according to the study by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE).
The message hits home in Ruben Guthrie, but it’s not without its problems. Ruben Guthrie was originally a successful stage play by Cowell and I tend to wonder how much this is his message getting lost in the transition from stage to screen.
I firstly did not warm to the amount of blatant product placement. Yes, it helped the film actually get financed and plays into the story of Ruben being in advertising, but ultimately the question has to be, at what cost? Where is the line drawn? It’s an important question, as product placement is likely to play a more and more prominent role in getting an expensive medium like film off the ground. Secondly, I found the characters themselves difficult to empathise with. In particular, I had issue with the depiction of women. Everyone from Ruben’s mother (played by Robyn Nevin), to his fiancee (Abbey Lee) to his girlfriend (Harriet Dyer), are either nasty, selfish, crazy or a little bit of each at different points in the movie.
But despite this, Ruben Guthrie is important because it carries a lot of food for thought. It has sparked a conversation about Australia’s drinking culture, which is always a good thing. The more Aussies who watch this film, the better, so people can ponder their own relationship with alcohol and how they might treat a friend who gives it up.