Drinking Buddies Review

(3.5 STARS)

An observational comedy best observed by the late 20s, early 30s craft brew crowd, Drinking Buddies represents mumblecore master director Joe Swanberg’s first baby step toward higher-profile filmmaking. Not unlike the Duplass Brothers’ Cyrus, Drinking Buddies is still a decidedly Swanbergian picture; it just features a cast of mainstream actors, as well as a crisper aesthetic.

That said, there’s nothing about this fine picture that should alienate the more mainstream viewer. Its laughs aren’t of the big belly variety, and its romantic moments are quietly earned, rather than grand and verbose. But Drinking Buddies is an exceptionally pleasant way to spend 90 minutes, featuring great music, even better performances, and very richly observed character development.

Kate (Olivia Wilde, never better) has a pretty grueling managerial job for a Chicago-based craft brewery, but she enjoys the hell out of it thanks to her love of drink and her outstanding rapport with coworker Luke (Jake Johnson). She’s in a relationship with the enigmatic Chris (Ron Livingston), while Luke is with Jill (Anna Kendrick), but the chemistry the two friends share is undeniable.

The two couples share a weekend in Michigan, which sees Chris and Jill spending more time together than with their respective partners, who are virtually inseparable throughout the entire getaway. Upon returning home, the two couples head in totally opposite directions, but Kate is never far from Luke’s mind, and vice versa. But will they actually pull the trigger and go full-on relationship?

While sharp in its observations, Drinking Buddies is carried on the shoulders of its cast, who improvised quite a bit of the movie, which was born not from a script but an outline. As I mentioned, Olivia Wilde has never been better. She and Jake Johnson set the screen on fire without ever stepping out of character. Don’t expect them to totally steal your heart a la Jack and Rose, but only someone ten beers in could miss Kate and Luke’s chemistry.

Even when she’s away from her costar, however, Wilde owns the film. The film’s climax involves Swanberg nearly tearing down everything he built up, and during these moments, we see just how fully realized Wilde’s Kate is—her fragility, her feistiness, her uneasiness when it comes to realizing happiness. None of it is necessarily groundbreaking, but Wilde’s performance is definitely eye-opening.

As the obstacles to Kate and Luke’s seemingly fateful courtship, Ron Livingston and Anna Kendrick aren’t given a ton to do, but thankfully, neither becomes a one-dimensional villain, either. Swanberg has bigger things in mind than your average romantic comedy. He’s more interested in exploring the in-between places in a relationship. What do you do when you you love someone but see your perfect match in another? For each individual in this complicated quadrangle, the answer to that question is different, yet, astonishingly, none rings false. While Drinking Buddies doesn’t exactly aim for the sky, it hits its targets with perfect precision.

Ben Richardson (of Beasts of the Southern Wild fame) is the film’s cinematographer, and he brings a brightness to Swanberg’s palette that makes Drinking Buddies go down all the more easily. Films like this, as simple as they are, just don’t come along very often. It’s hard, I imagine, to get a film made without many dynamic peaks and valleys, but Drinking Buddies—such a film—exists, and we should all be happier for it.

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