Drinking Buddies (2013) / Drama-Romance
MPAA Rated: R for a scene of nudity, some sexuality and language
Running time: 90 min.
Cast: Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston, Ti West
Small role: Jason Sudeikis, Joe Swanberg
Director: Joe Swanberg
Screenplay: Joe Swanberg
Review published July 31, 2013
Joe Swanberg (V/H/S, LOL) writes, directs, and edits this relatively low budget independent comedy/drama with quite a number of recognizable stars. The plot is very basic, mostly revolving around Kate (Wilde, In Time) and Luke (Johnson, Safety Not Guaranteed), two employees working in a craft microbrewery in Chicago. Kate and Luke have a casually flirtatious relationship at work, but have never acted upon it due to both of them being in separate, seemingly happy relationships with more serious-minded people. And yet, neither of them appear to be willing and able to actually work at their relationships, prefering to keep things status quo as long as they can. However, events that occur when the couples decide to go on a double date weekend excursion that has the couples growing apart as lovers as they attempt to grow closer as friends, and the lines begin to blur as to what any of them truly want.
The title is a bit misleading, as it sounds like it might be a ribald comedy in the vein of Strange Brew or Beerfest. In reality, it's not the beer that's as important as its representation of being stuck in a rut of not wanting to grow up and be responsible. It could be about any fun, frivolous thing friends do together; the drinking is just one of the things they do together. As is usual with Swanberg's films, the game cast of actors deliver dialogue in mostly improvisational style, which creates the feeling of authenticity that allows the drama to proceed in a believable fashion. However, with more recognizable and experienced thespians in his control, Swanberg has delivered one of his best efforts, with a sense of maturity, humor, insight, and gravitas that one rarely gets from your typical Hollywood romantic dramedy. Working with skilled cinematographer Ben Richardson (Beasts of the Southern Wild), the look of the film is better than his prior efforts; Drinking Buddies may not look like an expensive movie, but it doesn't come off like a cheap home video camera production either.
Much of the insight to the film is drawn from seeing two platonic friends who still find attraction in one another changing their dynamic once one of them is no longer in a relationship. When both are attached and unavailable, they flirt with, but never quite cross the line. When one of them is free, there is a selfishness involved in the attached friend in wanting to court the other, which is especially aggravated seeing that free person now on the rebound, flirting and dating with others. It creates a dilemma, as the one still in a relationship would like to retain that status, but also can't bear to see the friend they've grown to like, and perhaps even form an affection toward, in the arms of someone else, perhaps many others. Add copious amounts of alcohol into the mix, and problems can begin to multiply in a hurry.
The performances are solid all around, with Jake Johnson continuing to impress in comedic roles, though he shows an equal flair for drama here. Olivia Wilde, who also receives a producer credit, is also very good, though it must be said that it is perhaps an oddity to see a woman with her cover-model looks get so little comments from her all-male coworkers, as well as become disposable to most men pursuing a relationship with her. However, as we come to know her and her immaturity, and lack of ability to care about anything but her own pursuit of fun, we can understand readily how she might attract a man, but it might be difficult for her to stay in a relationship with one, especially as contrasted with the more pleasant and "together" Jill (Rapture-Palooza, End of Watch), who is the woman pursuing marriage with Luke. She likes to tease, but doesn't always like to actually do anything more than that, which gets her in and out of trouble more often than not. Wilde delivers a rich, nuanced role, not worrying if it makes her seem unflattering. And yes, in case you're wondering, she does even have a nude scene.
If you like the cast, and enjoy loose-hanging independent releases that emphasize more the realism of the situations rather than the pointedness, Drinking Buddies should meet well with you, especially if you don't mind the improvisational style. To paraphrase an old Latin expression, 'In beer, there is truth', and in this insightful film, many truths about the fragility of relationships come out, for better or worse.
©2013 Vince Leo