2013 - 90 minutes
Written and Directed by: Joe Swanberg
Starring: Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston, Ti West
With 17 features in the last 9 years, director Joe Swanberg is a maestro of mumblecore – the indie subgenre marked by low budget production, amateur actors and naturalistic dialogue mostly ruminating on the ills of an ordinary existence. Thankfully, for “Drinking Buddies” it appears he’s at least partially graduated to a more mature and refined process that adds a different level of quality to the quantity. Cinematographer Ben Richardson (who shot “Beasts of the Southern Wild”) brings even more artistic panache. Or at least some.
The cast is definitely an asset as well, with Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston navigating choppy relationship waters. Wilde and Johnson are Kate and Luke, co-workers at a Chicago brewery who have a flirtatious banter that suggests an innocent mutual attraction. Even more suggestive is what’s not said – a lot of their actions seem driven by getting the other to notice them.
They seem like they would make a perfect couple, the only problem being each is in a relationship. Kate with the slightly older and more established Chris (Livingston), who – while his girlfriend’s life revolves around beer – is more of a whiskey guy. Luke is sorta almost engaged to Jill (Kendrick), a down to earth teacher.
The two couples meet and socialize cordially and quickly go on a weekend trip to Chris’s cabin on the lake. It becomes apparent that perhaps the two couples are mismatched and actually would make more sense to be paired off differently. I feared the rest of the film would be a forced, unfunny situational comedy of errors where the couples work out a solution to switch partners. Like a bad episode of “Seinfeld.” But thankfully, that’s not what we get. “Drinking Buddies” is smarter and funnier than that, and cares about its characters.
After Kate and Chris’s inevitable split, things get a little complicated. Luke and Jill start having the first awkward conversations we’ve seen them have. He actively avoids the marriage questions. He’s upset when Kate hooks up with a fellow co-worker – played by Ti West, who for a nuanced performer is a pretty good horror director.
Wilde is extremely impressive in the lead role. She remains likeable even after some questionable actions and a penchant for being slightly immature. She nails the balance between getting laughs and inspiring empathy. The four lead actors are all effective at capturing the rhythm of conversation and the lubrications that grease the wheels. Swanberg maximizes his strong cast and creates a lightly comic, lightly dramatic tone that never gets pushed too far in either direction.
© 2013 by Blake Crane