A few years ago, actor and writer Brendan Cowell decided he was hitting the booze a bit hard, and took a year off alcohol. Moving in the worlds of theatre and film, it was challenging and eye-opening. But the biggest change was in the people around him.
“People’s behaviour was fascinating,” says Cowell. “They were saying ‘you can’t do that’. So I started to write things down that people were saying to me.” By the end of his dry year, Cowell had a notebook full of observations of people’s reactions to his boozeless lifestyle. The notebook became a play, which has now become a film, Ruben Guthrie, written and directed by Cowell himself.
The film is funny, poignant, and perhaps, for a lot of Australians, uncomfortably familiar. Patrick Brammall (who bears more than a passing resemblance to Cowell), plays a Sydney ad man who tries to give up drink cold turkey, at first to win back the affection of his erstwhile girlfriend, played by Abbey Lee, and eventually to claw back a modicum of self-respect. He attends AA meetings and stays dry, despite colleagues, close friends and even his parents trying to put drink back on the menu.
“It shouldn’t be a struggle, and there shouldn’t be enough to make a movie about, but there is,” says Cowell, who argues that drinking is Australia’s national pastime. “If you put your hand up and say you’re not going to do it anymore, there’s a perception that you’re saying you’re better than everyone else. You don’t want to be part of the club.”
The club depicted in the film is an inviting one. Ruben Guthrie lives in a glossy paradise, a privileged world of success that he is constantly encouraged to toast. He drinks in the classiest bars, with beautiful, albeit half-cut, people. He wins awards for his advertisements selling glamour to the populace, and celebrates hard. He also has a ludicrously well-stocked bar in his lounge-room, which remains there throughout his dry spell as a kind of self-flagellation. How do you live in this world of temptation without a drink in your hand?
“Alcohol is a whole lot of fun,” says Cowell, “but shit, it creates massive problems. You’d be naive to think otherwise. And those problems aren’t going away.”
Despite Cowell’s views, the film doesn’t stoop to just a cautionary tale, or worse, a lecture on the dangers of excess. It’s a talking point. “It’s less about alcoholism than about the way drinking is just accepted in our society,” says Cowell. “Going out and getting smashed is, in a way, seen as quite heroic.”
And what film in this country has really explored that attitude in the past? Wake in Fright, perhaps, which more than 40 years ago depicted social alcoholism in the bush? It was a brilliant film, but audiences hated it, and our national cinema hasn’t really tackled our national pastime since.
Perhaps, says Cowell, we just don’t want to know. “Australian audiences do not want to be told what to do,” Cowell tells me. “Can you think of anything worse than some upstart filmmaker telling us we’re all drunks? Maybe he should go home so we can have a drink in peace.”
But audiences do want a bit of meat on their comedies, and something beyond cheap gags to take away from it.
“When the film premiered at the Sydney Film Festival, I think 95 per cent of the audience enjoyed it,” says Cowell, “and then went and got smashed. I don’t know what that says.”
“I guess the ideas stick out, but I think showing them all those endless glasses of champagne and spirits means that they also say ‘fuck it, I just want a drink’.
“But you know,” says Cowell, “hopefully they’re also thinking about why they’re doing it.”
Ruben Guthrie opens nationally on Thursday July 16.