In Drinking Buddies we are introduced to Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson), two people working at a local brewery who have undeniable chemistry, sparked by their shared love of both sarcasm and beer. That strong bond is complicated by the fact that both Kate and Luke have significant others in their lives; for Kate there’s Chris (Ron Livingston), a mature older man who is a counter-weight to her free-spirited ways; and for Luke there’s Jill (Anna Kendrick), a girl whose patience with Luke’s commitment fears seemingly knows no bounds.
When a friendly encounter puts the two couples under one roof for a weekend getaway, their interactions will spark a series of relationship trials and questions that force each of them to put aside fantasy and fallacy in order to truly examine what they want, and how that desire compares to the more sober-minded reality of what they may need in life and love.
Writer/director Joe Swanberg has been working on indie features for years now, but most of them have flown under the radar. With Drinking Buddies, Swanberg has scored his most promising (and high-profile) film yet; the result is a stripped-down and straightforward look at the complications of relationships (be they friendly or romantic) that may not astound (narratively or cinematically speaking) but still manages to strike an honest enough chord to earn it a place in memory as a solid indie romantic drama from a promising up-and-coming filmmaker.
The art of creating inference-heavy cinematic narratives tends to be both hit-or-miss and/or divisive amongst audiences. The filmmaker faces the challenge of having to score bullseye hits with every dialogue-sparse scene and body movement of the actors – while the audience faces the challenge of having to relate well enough to the subject matter to pick up on all the subtext of what is going on in every interaction between characters and narrative of each scene.
The latter requisite depends entirely on the viewer, of course, but there is enough that Swanberg nails dead-on that most adults – and this is a story particularly tailored to the 30-something crowd – will be able to fully intuit what the characters are thinking and feeling. And, for the most part, Swanberg proves to be a competent guide as both writer and director, meticulously shaping each scene with a laser focus on internal development and human drama – at least as far as Kate and Luke are concerned. The dialogue between the two is loose, witty, and funny, with Johnson bringing his proven comedic timing and Wilde giving back just as much wit. There is also a nicely woven motif about beer and drinking that serves as metaphor for emotional clarity and honesty – or lack thereof – helping to shape the character arcs and build the climatic payoff.
However, while the core is well constructed, the extraneous parts of the story (like the significant others or various characters encountered along the way) feel more like thinly-drawn devices used to pinball Kate and Luke down the narrative path. One particular scene that removes both protagonists feels downright out-of-place and at odds with the rest of the film – thankfully, such deviations are few and far between. The closer we are to the center (the Luke/Kate relationship) the stronger the film plays; the further from center we move, the more flimsy and unimpressive the film becomes - which probably says a lot about the nature of the energy and focus Swanberg is bringing to this passion project.
The actors involved certainly help to sell the vision; New Girl star Jake Johnson continues to show surprising depth behind his trademark smarmy sarcastic persona (see also: his impressive turn in last year’s indie hit, Safety Not Guaranteed). While the story is certainly a two-pronged narrative about a pair of protagonists, in many ways Drinking Buddies is really Luke’s story of growth and maturation (likely the side of the story the writer best related to), and Johnson does a great job with restrained emoting and dry wit – all while hidden behind the confines of a grizzly beard.
Wilde does an equally great job painting Kate with careful brush strokes of implied depth and three-dimensionality. She’s at once funny, charming, sexy, troubled, juvenile, vulnerable and free-spirited in a blend that doesn’t seem contradictory and comes across as human and believable. Wilde even whittles her sex symbol aura down enough to come across as a more believable version of the girl who would go for a guy like Luke. That is to say: Johnson and Wilde sharing the screen never once feels imbalanced, contrived or artificial – and that makes all the difference. They are imperfect but believable people who behave in very believable ways, making them perfect vehicles for the audience.
As mentioned, Livingston and Kendrick are handed more flat and thin characters to play: initially it seems like both Chris and Jill are going to have more dynamic and important arcs in the story, but after the first act (the weekend getaway) both characters are quickly regulated to plot-device status. For what it’s worth, Kendrick and Livingston are solid supports for their respective leads.
The progression of the story may be familiar to anyone who has seen a “road not taken” romantic drama before – but again, the uniqueness of the environment and chemistry of the central characters keep this relationship study interesting and lively – despite the fact that not many interesting or inventive things actually take place. That’s a nicer way of saying that if you’re the type who doesn’t like characters sitting around in rooms drinking beers and swapping jump-cut bits of what often seems like improvised dialogue – if you need more dynamic set pieces and character interactions to keep your interest – then this film will not engage you much at all.
However, if subtlety in storytelling and the complicated gray areas of real-life (as opposed to the black-and-white arcs of some dramas) are what you crave in a good romantic movie – and you don’t mind a slightly hipster edge to the proceedings – then Drinking Buddies is worth checking out (if only from the comfort of your own home as a rental).
Drinking Buddies is now in the limited theatrical release; it is also available on Video On Demand, iTunes and other streaming services. It is 90 minutes long and is Rated-R for language.