A film about abstaining from alcohol probably shouldn't make its audience want a drink, but that's exactly what Ruben Guthrie does. On one hand, perhaps the desire to knock back the hard stuff after watching the film speaks to its intended commentary about Australia's booze-friendly culture. On the other, maybe it's just the natural reaction to a movie that is both slickly packaged and self-pitying.
Either way, Ruben Guthrie doesn't let the topic of drinking wander far from anyone's minds, whether its titular advertising wunderkind (Patrick Brammall) is guzzling champagne then jumping off the roof of his waterside mansion — and breaking his arm when he almost misses the pool below — or talking about past benders at the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting his mother (Robyn Nevin) swiftly drags him to. Often, he's just arguing about his consumption, first with his disapproving model fiancée Zoya (Abbey Lee), who gives him an ultimatum to stop, and then with his enabling father (Jack Thompson), boss (Jeremy Sims) and best mate (Alex Dimitriades), who can't accept his hiatus from partying.
Transitioning from yelling "let's get smashed!" to looking longingly at half-filled bottles, it's the kind of scenario that feels like art imitating life — or a movie adapting a theatre production that was inspired by real experiences more accurately, because that's what it is. Brendan Cowell turned his own attempt to get sober after a big binge into a play, and now fashions it into his first big-screen full-length directorial effort.
As a character, Guthrie's aim — and Cowell's before him — is to get through a year without beer, wine, spirits and other tipples. That's clearly a difficult feat for the ad man in the film, made more so by the brash manner in which both the situation and everyone involved in it is depicted. Guthrie feels sorry for himself and seeks redemption, but his behaviour warrants little understanding in return. He lives large, then mopes and yells, with Brammall doing his best to simultaneously channel Cowell and bring nuance to the role. The supporting players, meanwhile, become little more than one-note reminders of Guthrie's conflicting urges.
Of course, the constant Aussie fondness for a pint, glass or shot that Ruben Guthrie highlights proves an interesting subject; here, it's just treated a little too superficially, and further suffers when the movie tries to conjure up too much sympathy. Stagey dialogue and travelogue-like shots of Sydney don't add any depth, nor do routine scenes of debauchery contrasted with outdoor activities.
Also missing is comedy that does anything more than try to wring laughs out of stating the obvious — as well as the more satirical tone of the play, which might've made the feature and its protagonist feel like a statement. Instead, this cinema cocktail is shaken in its ingredients and, in its final blend of hedonistic excess, garnished with sober navel-gazing. You'll need a stiff drink will wash away the aftertaste.