Life is good for ad man Ruben Guthrie – he leads a party boy lifestyle, has a model fiancée and lives in a house on the water. He’s at the top of his game, until some drunken skylarking lands Ruben at the bottom of his infinity pool, lucky to be alive. His mum hits the panic button and sends Ruben to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings; then his fiancée leaves him, but not before issuing him one final challenge: If Ruben can do one year without a drink, she’ll give him another chance…
Adapted from a Brendan Cowell play first performed in 2009, Ruben Guthrie is the story of one man not only battling the bottle, but the city, family, friends and colleagues that won’t let him put it down.
On 3 June 2015, the film Ruben Guthrie premiered at the Sydney Film Festival marketed as “a thirsty comedy about a man on the rocks”.
As a comedy, it was pretty dark. Ruben’s year of sobriety is an Alice in Wonderland-like tumble down a rabbit hole. For a year he’s an outsider to the omnipotent, omnipresent drinking culture which distorts Ruben’s perception of himself, the character and behaviour of those around him, and pushes him to re-evaluate reality.
One year sober, Ruben’s mother, Susan, tells him that it is time for Ruben to “rejoin society”, which in her view necessitates drinking alcohol in “moderation” (this world view seems to reject abstinence as an option). It was a disturbing twist to see Susan, the woman who took Ruben to his first AA meeting, do an about-face a year later – cooing as she pours a glass of wine down her son’s throat like medicinal denial of her family’s problems with alcohol.
Another sad feature of the film: many of the male characters are articulate, creative, seemingly charming individuals who lack the ability to channel their emotions in a way that isn’t either self-destructive (in the form of alcohol and other drug abuse) or harmful to others. Or both.
Two examples come to mind. First, the rage and aggression that wells up in Ruben when he can’t cope with the rejection he faces from the world for drinking heavily on the one hand (manifest in his fiancée, Zoya) and for abstaining from alcohol on the other (manifest in his parents, friends and colleagues at work). Second, the scenes where Ruben’s manipulative boss, Ray, verbally abuses Ruben, telling him to drink to get his creative ‘mojo’ back and save the ad agency’s bottom line. The cruel hypocrisy being that Ray himself abstains from alcohol yet refuses to help Ruben forge a sober path in the advertising industry.
At first blush, Ruben wasn’t a character easy to relate to or understand. His high-flying lifestyle is far removed from mine, his ‘work hard, party harder’ career is a distant curiosity to me, and his wilful ignorance of his drinking and its impact on those around him is bewildering.
But then, on reflection, what resonates is that last point about the perception of one’s drinking. If Ruben Guthrie was a real person, where would he and his peers sit on the spectrum of alcohol behaviours and opinions?
I think they would sit comfortably alongside many other Australians in their relationship with alcohol.
They, like most (79 per cent) Australians – myself included – consume alcohol. And like the majority (69 per cent) of Australians who drink, the characters in Ruben Guthrie seem comfortable with the amount of alcohol they consume.
At the beginning of the film, Ruben’s opinions don’t seem too different from those held by nearly all (92 per cent) Aussies who consider themselves to be ‘responsible’ drinkers despite the contradiction of more than a third (34 per cent) drinking to get drunk.
Ruben and his father Peter (later diagnosed with pancreatitis) are characters not too far-removed from the one in five (19.1 per cent) Australian adults who drink every day at a level that puts them at risk of lifetime alcohol harms, such as cancers and liver, digestive and cardiovascular diseases.
The drinking habits of Ruben and his peers are not too distant from the one in four (22.7 per cent) Australian adults who drink on a monthly or weekly basis at a level that puts them at risk of short term alcohol harms. When a drunk Ruben jumps off his roof into his pool at the beginning of the film, his case becomes part of the 47 per cent of alcohol-attributable hospitalisations of Australian men for injuries.
By the end of the film, Ruben, like his fiancée Zoya, would be among the 75 per cent who believe that Australia has a problem with alcohol, and the 40 per cent who consider alcohol to be the drug that causes the most harm, ahead of illegal drugs, tobacco and pharmaceutical drugs.
In light of these parallels, Ruben Guthrie raises several questions about how an individual should be accountable for their drinking habits; how an individual’s drinking is influenced by the community they live and drink with; and why many Australians are uncomfortable in the company of those who choose not to drink on an occasion (or ever)?
When chatting about the film with my friends, we reflected on Australia’s drinking culture. We also considered the male narrative of the film and how different it would be if it was about the fall from grace of a ‘Rachel’ instead of a ‘Ruben’.
It is a great thing when a film can be both entertaining and also kick-starts interesting conversations and debates about behaviours that consciously or unconsciously fly under our personal radar, but show up in our perception of ‘others’. If you don’t see yourself as Ruben, you may see yourself in his family struck with defensive denial, or in his enabling colleagues and friends, or perhaps in Zoya; who, sick of the impact of others’ drinking on her life, is still hopeful that a healthier relationship with alcohol is possible.
If you or someone you know has problems with alcohol, you can seek assistance from the Alcohol and Drug Information Services in your State or Territory or by contacting the following national helplines.
Lifeline 13 11 14
Alcoholics Anonymous 1300 22 22 22
Kids Help Line 1800 551 800