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 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…
A heavy drinker attempts to walk a sober line within a boozy circle, in Brendan Cowell’s timeline of temperance, Ruben Guthrie. Ruben (Patrick Brammall) is a perennial party boy living high on, well, pretty much anything he can get up his nose or down his throat, as the supposed 'rock star' creative director of a top Sydney advertising firm (George Patterson Y&R, which also backed the film and stacked it with ‘agency branded content’, whatever that means). He’s engaged to a top model, Zoya (Abbey Lee), who moved in when she was 16 and now feels like just another of his shiny trophies in the harbourside mansion with the cold floors and designer recliners (she’s been on at him to buy a couch for a few years, but Ruben Guthrie is ‘not a couch guy’).
Ruben Guthrie, the person, inhabits the same brassy, shallow, hedonistic Sydney best epitomised in David Williamson’s cutting ‘80s satire Emerald City. Thirty years on, Guthrie is a next-generation harbourside hustler, collecting gongs for top tier tourism and prestige car clients, and putting the ‘fun’ in functioning alcoholism. Or so it seems, until a poolside prank lands him a broken arm and an ultimatum from an over-it Zoya. Get sober, or get lost, she warns, and come find me if/when you’re a year clean.
We keep tabs on Ruben’s Big Year over the course of a random dozen days (1, 31, 66 and so on). His progress is hampered by the reluctance of his friends, colleagues and assorted hangers on, to adjust to life with a non-drinking buddy, and Ruben’s own bid for clarity brings his friends and family’s lack of same into sharp relief. Variations of the old ‘Have a drink for me’ argument abound, at first from his slimy boss (“Get that mojo back in range. I’m not losing my harbour view just because you had a tiff with a supermodel”), to his parents (Robin Nevin and Jack Thompson), whose “everything in moderation” mantra doesn’t allow for a son who substitutes sauv blanc with mineral water.
For his first film, Cowell has adapted his own quasi-autobiographical 2008 stage play (originally directed for the stage by The Sapphires’ Wayne Blair), and the storytelling suffers a bit in the transition. Emotion, such as it is, is cued by the Sarah Blasko soundtrack, and despite Brammall’s best efforts, it’s hard to latch onto Ruben as a figure of empathy. Cowell changes our level of access to his lead character over the course of Ruben’s sober cycle: sometimes we’re inside his head, getting a first-hand look at his dodgy decision making and/or witnessing his night terrors; other times we’re detached spectators being asked to take an unearned leap of faith. The Scorsese staple - first-person narration - often provides a 'way in' to hard-to-like characters and may have been a better device here (its theatrical origins are already easy to spot in other ways).
At around the 100-day mark, Ruben falls into bed with his sponsor, Virginia (Harriet Dyer), and the movie takes a disappointing detour when it treats her issues with sex and addiction as a dumb punch line. She’s lumbered with a slutty reputation that precedes her in the group (so much for the ‘Anonymous’ bit), and is relegated to being the trippy hippy comic relief with a constant need for shame showers.
On the bright side, Alex Dimitriades brings welcome laughs as Damien, Ruben’s hard-living friend from uni days, who moves in and tests his host’s willpower with telltale 'baggies' and duty free booze, and parties hard on the aforementioned recliners. He’s a funny foil to the increasingly shrill characterisation of Virginia, and we miss him when he takes a hike.
At least when the story stalls, there’s ample opportunity to admire the view, because for all the quips at Sydney’s expense, you’re treated to plenty of beauty shots of the sun-drenched harbour foreshore and surrounds – no surprise state tourism agency Destination NSW is a partial backer. (Side note – for a film that spans 12 months, there’s no hint of a windy winter.)
There’s an unintended ‘ripped from the headlines’ quality to the story of an advertising executive’s battle with alcohol that comes just weeks after the country’s most famous adman indulged in a notorious liquid lunch and sparked a national conversation about alcohol-fuelled violence. The film opened the 2015 Sydney Film Festival, an unconventional choice for an event that’s followed by an open bar party. Balancing that out is the planned local release slap bang in the middle of the teetotaller charity month, Dry July.