In eight years of features, Joe Swanberg has developed a substantial body of minor works, but “Drinking Buddies” proves it had a direction. Swanberg’s unabashedly scrappy profiles tend to focus on perpetually inelegant people in search of meaning in their lives as they often struggle to find romantic satisfaction. “Drinking Buddies” is no exception, but with its steadier production values and uniformly strong performances, it continues the director’s observational approach while improving on the most promising ingredients found throughout his filmography.
While ostensibly a small, unassuming narrative, “Drinking Buddies” is still affecting where it counts. While most of Swanberg’s preceding features have amounted to sketches, the latest is a full-bodied achievement. Just as the Duplass brothers attracted name talent to their improvisatory style with their first studio effort “Cyrus,” with “Drinking Buddies” Swanberg has landed a group of recognizable faces: Olivia Wilde, as craft brewery manager Kate, stands out as one half of an allegedly platonic relationship with her co-worker Luke (Jake Johnson), but it’s evident early on that the hint of attraction between them faces a major roadblock: Both are embroiled in relationships.
Luke leads a settled life with the curiously insecure Jill (Anna Kendrick), while the carefree Kate maintains a less serious fling with the affable Chris (Ron Livingston). This quartet forms the bulk of the movie in all its squirm-worthy awkwardness as the attractions shared by various characters shift around and we keep waiting for things to fall apart.
Instead, more true to life than any forced dramatic twist, the progression of “Drinking Buddies” hints at hidden desires while making it unclear which direction things will go. An early overnight beach trip that the couples treat as an innocuous outing naturally goes awry, leading to the first of many incidents that inform their complex dynamic. Swanberg, who also wrote and edited the film, imbues the proceedings with an amusingly comedic flow rich with verbal slips, innuendo and constant romantic frustration.
In one throwaway line, a character says in response to a witty aside, “I think that’s supposed to be ironic, but I’m not sure anymore.” That’s the essence of the appeal that keeps “Drinking Buddies” both low key and engaging: Swanberg taps into the experience of not knowing when exchanges are sincere, in jest, or simply some coded means of expressing the inexpressible. The resulting confusion results in an infectious humor that percolates throughout and leads nicely into the unexpected outbursts of emotion in its closing scenes.
It helps that “Drinking Buddies” never distracts from these strengths with overt stylistic indulgences. Technically, the movie bears little resemblance to Swanberg’s earlier work, much of which he shot himself. Here, working with cinematographer Ben Richardson — fresh from shooting “Beasts of the Southern Wild” — along with music supervisor Kris Swanson, whose selection of gentle pop melodies lend a sweet atmosphere, Swanberg delivers an imminently watchable narrative that’s certainly his most accessible. By its conclusion, “Drinking Buddies” is enjoyably slight — but it also brings clarity to his other movies, all of which focus on people with the incapacity to communicate without obscuring what they really want to say. In “Drinking Buddies,” they still don’t quite say it, but the conundrum is especially clear.
A lot of that has to do with the cast. In Swanberg’s case, working with bigger names didn’t mean selling out; instead, it afforded him a more complex range of talent. Among them, Wilde gives her most assertive performance to date, playing a witty, energetic personality whose tendency to imbibe the brewery’s latest batch and start trouble marks the strongest female character in the Swanberg universe since “Hannah Takes the Stairs.” At the other end of the spectrum, Kendrick’s fragile turn shows her capacity for subdued, intimate roles far different from the ebullient, chatty types she usually plays. Livingston, however, takes on the movie’s greatest challenge by constantly toying with our sympathies: As tensions mount between Kate and Chris, it’s never clear until the end whether he’s the instigator or the victim.
With this and other questions pertaining to his character’s motives, Swanberg once again shows a capacity for capturing small moments that exist outside the direction of the plot. At the same time, the effective fragments of “Drinking Buddies” take his oeuvre in a new direction by accumulating into a reworking big picture.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? With its name talent and use of genre, the movie seems likely to find a welcome with a midsize distributor and reap solid returns in limited release.