Written & Directed by Joe Swanberg
Starring Jake Johnson, Olivia Wilde, Anna Kendrick & Ron Livingston
Nothing- in the cinematic sense- really happens in director Joe Swanberg’s ‘Drinking Buddies‘, and yet so much does. To understand that contradiction however is to understand the general uneventfulness of most people’s routine lives. In the context of this film, the request to drive a drunken friend home and the boozy response is riddled with a surfeit of complexity and meaning. So is a boyfriend asking his girlfriend that a coaster be used for her beer. Sometimes the buildup to a conversation, or the act that starts one, is the emotional height of the day.
It’s with great authenticity and reverence to these seemingly minute but implicating relational subtleties that ‘Drinking Buddies’ succeeds as an intimate portrait of daily life. The main characters acting as the emblematic truths of soul searching 30-somethings are Luke (Jake Johnson) and Kate (Olivia Wilde), flirtatious work buddies at a Chicago microbrewery, hopelessly platonic. Their camaraderie and promiscuity are reined by the fact that both are attached to relationships. Luke is tied to a clean-hearted special-ed instructor, Jill (Anna Kendrick), and Kate bikes to her schoolteacher boyfriend Chris (a tired-looking Ron Livingston). In a seemingly perfect world, the two couples would just swap.
But of course broaching that subject is far more difficult and nuanced than either would like and Swanberg knows it. He tempts us early on during a double date weekend getaway at Chris’s beach house. There, the established couples polarize; Chris and Jill take a nature walk and eat a proper lunch on a blanket (she’s even supplied a cheeseboard) while Luke and Kate stay by the beach, chugging beer and building sloppy sandwiches. In your typical romantic comedy, this is where the sparks spontaneously fly and the ambiguity ends. Here, it just begins. Alone, in the bonfired crackle of the night, social lubricant in hand, Chris struggles to make the skinny dip plunge Kate invites him to join.
These moments give the film its essence, a level of veracity in both dialogue and gesture that feel equivalent to the conversations shared at countless bars last night. Swanberg, a proud member of the Mumblecore genre of filmmaking, a style with dialogue meant to feel unedited and unscripted in a no budget, low-fi lens, appears his most polished here. It’s almost as if a college English professor edited the film, sprucing up its content and clarity so as to not let overt style change its idea. This is Mumblecore graduated, shifting focus from its financial disparity, keeping its core conversational tone together. Swanberg elicits dynamic performances because of its improvisational sensibility.
In fact, this may very well be Olivia Wilde’s best performance to date, one dutifully given from start to finish unlike her more marginal roles in duds like ‘Cowboys and Aliens’ and ‘The Incredible Burt Wonderstone’. She’s a tomboy, almost unaware of her cosmic looks, but Swanberg makes her full in his dual lens. Maybe by the climax (if you can call it that), it’s clear that there is no one side with which to partially sympathize (Johnson gives another strong and scratchy performance). Regardless of the perspective, as an observer you witness the tension, pent-up emotion, and know its monumental effects in the moment. It’s a rare and magical thing to find objective subtlety like that and Swanberg’s camera lingers, eavesdropping as if grasping for as much nuance as possible.
Swanberg is not content to speed up the story. To fully understand Luke and Kate, both the comedy and tragedy of their like souls, we must be with them. So we watch them eat lunch together, take naps on each others’ shoulder, and pour down their brews in competition. We know they’d be ideal together. They probably know it, too.
‘Drinking Buddies’ is the kind of film you delightedly, unexpectedly happen upon during a Sunday afternoon. By the end, maybe you’ll still have some questions. Maybe you’ll still want some answers. But more likely, you’ll realize that your unfulfilled concerns are what make this film so inherently, well, fulfilling.
– Jake Kring-Schriefels