Not much happens in Drinking Buddies, which, frankly, is refreshing. Unlike the recent summer blockbusters, which typically feature three to five cosmic-altering events per half-hour, Joe Swanberg’s movie is more in the smudgy-mirror-up-to-nature school. This is a movie about people who have jobs, friends, are self-conscious but not especially insightful, who drink beer and enjoy it, and occasionally fall for the wrong person. When movie excitement has become banal, this sort of banality is refreshing.
Chicago-based Swanberg (Hannah Takes the Stairs) is a key member of the “mumblecore” movement of lo-fi filmmaking that emerged about eight years ago, including directors Andrew Bujalski (Funny Ha Ha, Computer Chess), Lynn Shelton (Humpday, Your Sister’s Sister) Mark and Jay Duplass (The Puffy Chair, Cyrus). Lena Dunham’s HBO series, Girls, about hookups and breakups and embarrassments, has brought the aesthetic to television.
This is Swanberg’s 13th solo feature in eight years, and has been described as his possible breakthrough. The presence of name actors (Olivia Wilde, Anna Kendrick) and an outside cinematographer (Beasts of the Southern Wild’s Ben Richardson) have marked this as a film that could reach from the mumblecore to the mumble mainstream.
In its premise, Drinking Buddies resembles a Hollywood romantic comedy: Two best friends, Kate (Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson, of TV’s New Girl), who work at a Chicago microbrewery, are meant for each other but don’t know it. They cuddle, and confide, stick their fingers in each other’s food like mischievous brats and spend more time with each other than they do with their supposed partners. A brewery is a great place to work if you like to drink, which is Kate and Luke’s common ground. They have beer at lunch, at corporate events, and after work, they go to a bar with their work team and drink some more.
She’s in charge of event-planning and marketing, and works in the office for her hovering, slightly infatuated manager (Wilde’s real-life partner, Jason Sudeikis). A good-looking tomboy in an all-male shop, she enjoys all the attention she gets, but especially Luke’s brotherly company. Luke is a brewer who works on the floor, an easygoing jokester whose face is barely visible between his beard and the ever-present baseball cap over his eyes.
Each of them has a partner. Kate, who spends a lot of time racing about on her bicycle, is involved with a handsome older record producer, Chris (Ron Livingston), who likes to read and drop literary references. Luke lives with Jill (Anna Kendrick), a special-ed teacher. Usually seen in sweaters and dresses, she is a homebody, who would like Luke to move the marriage discussion a little higher on his agenda.
After a corporate party, the two couples end up at Chris’s family’s rustic cabin (a place where far too many indie movies end up). Nothing earth-shattering happens, but the couples are obviously misaligned: Kate and Luke continue to hang out with each other, drinking, playing cards and sharing stories, while Chris and Jill, who talk about books and go on a hike, experience an awkward physical attraction to each other.
The dramatic tension is more uncomfortable than tense, shot with a hand-held camera that never feels too obtrusive, but is present like a fifth guest. The dialogue is apparently improvised, but the actors are all smart. Ron Livingston’s character, Chris, the literate older guy who’s not too sure that Kate is right for him, has some of the best lines. Mocking the pretentious language of wine-tasting, he sips a beer and declares: “I detect jelly sandwiches with dark clouds of puberty on the horizon.” He also expresses his feelings about Kate’s devotion to him in a telltale offhand way: “I guess you have to take a person at their word that they’re actually into you.”
What’s winning about Drinking Buddies, apart from the flawed, relatable characters, is the way the movie seems to get smarter as it progresses. There’s a point in Drinking Buddies when Chris presents Kate with a novel he wants her to read. Chris, who’s older, fancies himself a bit of an educator. By that point, viewers may have already clued in that there’s something Updike-lite in Drinking Buddies, a story of middle-class temptations and the desire to flee from the mundane. A key line may be from Updike’s short story collection Couples: “The first breath of adultery is the freest; after it, constraints aping marriage develop.”
At the same time, it’s of this generation. Drinking Buddies is in a less harshly gender-divided world than Updike’s suburbia of 50 years ago, or even Nora Ephron’s in When Harry Met Sally of almost a quarter-century past. Friendship between the sexes still has its perils, but frankly, sometimes it’s just easier.