An exercise in geniality.

Drinking Buddies is a landmark movie for Swanberg, as he is finally beginning to discard the “straight outta film-school,” no-budget persona for a compromising style of more well-known actors, a larger, but still relatively independent budget, and with the no-budget story. This style of independent filmmaking hasn’t been completely foreign to anyone working in the “mumblecore” movement in cinema since the Duplass brothers – Jay and Mark – have recently adopted the style with two of their most recent films, Cyrus and Jeff, Who Lives at Home (both of which must-sees).

The style Swanberg used in his early films, such as Hannah Takes the Stairs, LOL, and Nights and Weekends, was extremely low-budget and filled mostly with naturalistic dialog, intimate closeups, and very bleak looks at modern relationships. The thematic relevance of their stories I’ll explain later. I’d suggest this film to someone who disliked Swanberg’s earlier efforts, criticizing them as non-eventful, plotless, and very, very disconnecting.

The film follows two couples, Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Chris (Ron Livingston) and Luke (Jake Johnson) and Jill (Anna Kendrick). Kate and Luke are co-workers at a craft beer brewery in Chicago, and are obviously a perfect match if they weren’t committed in relationships. The two couples wind up vacationing in a cabin for a weekend, where both couples split up and hang out with each others’ significant other. When they return, this leads to Kate predominately questioning which relationship she feels more comfortable with; the one with Chris, who is a well-meaning but kind of bland guy, or Luke, the scruffy beer-enthusiast who is more fitting to go to a baseball game with than to have a serious romantic session with.

Even though not a performance here lacks and there is chemistry regardless of which two people are spending time together, Olivia Wilde shines the most here, proving to be a skilled improviser and a dedicated, diverse talent. Last year’s Butter is when she tested the ropes with being over-the-top and satirical, and here she occupies a performance much more grounded in reality than before. She is a strong and entertaining lead role. I’d go as far to say she’s a Greta Gerwig with less identifiable quirks. Paired up with Jake Johnson (from last year’s equally lovable Safety Not Guaranteed), their breezy banter can either reach playful levels or seriously dramatic ones, especially a particularly scene that comes after Kate moves to a new home.

Drinking Buddies
Joe Swanberg
Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston
Release Date
August 23, 2013
Influx Grade: A

As supporting roles, Livingston and Kendrick couldn’t be more fitting. Livingston, whose Conjuring is now in theaters and certain to get more publicity, has been on a role since roughly 2010 with great performance after great performance. This cements the fact that mumblecore could be the genre for him. His conflicted, indecisive character reminds me a lot of Mark Duplass’s in Your Sister’s Sister, a great little triumph of a film directed by Lynn Shelton. Kendrick never hits a wrong note, either, showing that while she can play sassy and perky in Pitch Perfect and devoted and loving in End of Watch, she can conduct herself in a small, independent picture just as well with intelligence and charisma to boot.

Returning to my point about Swanberg’s thematic tendencies in his pictures, I think the one subject or point-of-focus he always tries to include in his films his that most of his characters are young, dumb, and uncertain. All of his films focus on young, post-college kids who are either in a relationship or trying to get in a meaningful one. He has a deep fascination with the communication methods of twenty-year-olds, whether it be cold and sort of robotic on the internet, deep and intimate in person, or just the conversations two people have in bed right before they sleep.

Drinking Buddies is no stranger to this “young, dumb, and uncertain” theory. It reminds me a bit of Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz, a film whose lead character wasn’t quite sure what she wanted, whether it be this passionate romantic who lived across the street, or her own husband, even though their relationship has kind of soured recently. Ultimately, the lead character makes a decision she winds up regretting deeply because she was young and impulsive and her uncertainty got the best of her. Drinking Buddies shows Kate as very functional and definitely smart, but too smitten with minor flirtations and warm signals, not to mention her array of emotions which can reach bubbly affection or evident frustration.

Ultimately, I think Swanberg is exercising this theory again with a bigger budget and more known faces and is also writing a genial story on the problem with forcing a relationship into a platonic state. Moreover, I do think the extreme bleakness of his older pictures has been traded in for a warmer, more assured look on the world. I’ll make a comment I’ve never made before and I’ll say that he is one of the driving forces of American independent films and, at this point in time, providing he sticks with what he knows and continues to find inventive ways to make each story unique and easy to invest-in, he can do no wrong.


Reviewed by Steve Pulaski

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