It is one of the most mature and honest looks at adult relationships in a long time.
Relationships are complicated; this is not a new concept. Filmmakers have been milking this theme since the earliest days of cinema, though rarely are we given any truly insightful or profound glimpses into how men and women behave within—and because of—the confines of a relationship. Drinking Buddies, though, is something else. With his newest film (and a wry sense of humor), writer/director Joe Swanberg breaks cinema’s habit of regurgitating bland relationship stories by examining a unique situation, which articulates the ridiculous emotions and actions that can plague any couple.
Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) are really close. They spend most of their free time together, make each other laugh, and are completely comfortable around the other. The problem is, Kate and Luke aren’t dating. As co-workers at a small Chicago craft brewery, they have become a “work couple” even though both are dating someone else. Kate has been seeing Chris (Ron Livingston) for several months, while Luke is in a long-term relationship with Jill (Anna Kendrick) who keeps dropping hints about getting engaged.
As with any two people with such a good friendship, Kate and Luke want to spend more time together, so they introduce their respective partners and the foursome takes a weekend trip to Chris’s family’s cabin on Lake Michigan. The weekend goes well for the most part, but cracks in the relationships begin to show. Soon, each of the four individuals is forced to question how well they fit (or don’t fit) in the relationship they are in.
Swanberg has become the poster child of DIY filmmaking, shooting microbudget films on location with little artificial light and very naturalistic acting. Drinking Buddies contains all the staples of his brand of filmmaking, albeit with a much more recognizable cast than he’s ever worked with before. Never a fan of his stories feeling “too scripted,” Swanberg’s actors work from a rough outline he has written and much of what happens is improvised during filming. All four actors embrace Swanberg’s approach and never once does a character do or say anything out of character. This can be attributed both to the actors’ talents as well as Swanberg’s very deliberate character sketches.
Most impressive, though, is how well Swanberg captures the flirtatious behavior of co-workers. Kate and Luke have their own routines and jokes that, thanks to Wilde’s and Johnson’s terrific performances, feel completely authentic as if the actions had solidified after having worked together for a long, long time. Wilde and Johnson banter and argue exactly as two friends would when each knows exactly how to push the other’s buttons. To avoid mundane speeches, Swanberg never allows either character to just blurt how they feel. Instead, we watch Kate watch Luke as he interacts with Jill, a looking of longing in Kate’s eyes. Later, we see Luke’s completely unjustifiable jealousy as another co-worker gains Kate’s favor. This is the behavior of real people, not outburst of emotions or impassioned monologues.
Johnson, best known from TV but making his mark in small indie films, plays Luke with the perfect balance of Vince Vaughn charm and Vin Diesel machismo. Luke is a teddy bear, when it comes down to it, but his emotions occasionally get the best of him which lead to more than a few arguments with Jill and Kate. Wilde is also the best she’s ever been on the big screen, making Kate both infuriating and pitiful. Her big, beautiful eyes tell us everything we need to know about Kate and her long history of heartbreak. Kendrick and Livingston, as the supporting players, are both decent, though their plotline feels more forced on Swanberg’s part so their scenes distract from the overall impact of the film.
Drinking Buddies is at once funny and heartbreaking, but most importantly it is one of the most mature and honest looks at adult relationships in a long time. | Matthew Newlin