With the rise of digital filmmaking in the last decade, a new wave of DIY “mumblecore” filmmakers have risen up through the ranks. While initially many of these films were loose and unpolished, they are now are becoming more refined with many of these directors and actors now having basically integrated themselves into the mainstream (or mainstream indie anyway). Of the directors who have come of age during this digital era, perhaps none is more notorious or divisive than Joe Swanberg, the writer/director/editor/actor responsible for 12 films over the last 8 years. With an output that prolific, you would think by now you should know whether Swanberg’s brand of filmmaking is your cup of tea or not.
As someone who had only been tangentially familiar with his work — I had seen two of his shorts and quite some time ago “Hannah Takes The Stairs” took up a semi-permanent residence in my Netflix queue — I found myself very pleasantly surprised by “Drinking Buddies” a low-key relationship comedy with some potent chemistry between the film’s leads. Olivia Wilde stars as Kate, an attractive but unkempt office manager at a Chicago brewery. While not exactly a tomboy, she can still crack jokes, drink beer and keep up with her all-male coworkers without having to go out of her way to prove she’s just “one of the guys.” Kate has a particularly easy rapport with Luke (an almost unrecognizably gruff Jake Johnson), a quick-witted brewer.
Whether this office flirtation will develop (or if there is any shared history there to begin with) is part of the fun of watching these two together. It takes us a few minutes to parse the relationships in the film which make each reveal a nice dramatic wrinkle in the story. When Kate first arrives at the home of her boyfriend Chris (Ron Livingston), we don’t know if they live together or if things are much more casual, which turns out to be the case. During an event at the brewery we meet Luke’s serious girlfriend Jill (Anna Kendrick), a much more type-A personality than he is. Things become complicated after the couples take a weekend trip to Chris’ cabin and Luke and Kate continue to grow closer.
While it’s apparent that there was improv on the film, you would never guess that the actors were working solely from an outline. Improvisation can be great for capturing spontaneity and allowing for moments that feel more authentic than any scripted or rehearsed moment ever could, but it can also be dangerous unless you have a director (and editor) who really knows how to shape that material. In the wrong hands, scenes can to go on too long and when you can sense that the actors don’t know where the scene is heading, it rings entirely false. Credit Swanberg who served as both director and editor for making a film that feels loose without ever being ponderous or phony.
So often in films we’re shown the extremes: people who are meant to be together and people who clearly should not. Someone is unhappy for a reason, someone’s significant other is clearly wrong for them, etc. but life isn’t always like that and it’s rare that a film explores attraction when it’s not necessarily acted on. Relationships are hard, our biology is essentially wired to be completely destructive to monogamy and without giving away exactly how things end up, “Drinking Buddies” does a great job of exploring that friction.
Wilde and Johnson have such crazy palpable chemistry together that simple scenes of drinking, playing cards and joking around become filled with the suspense of whether or not they’re going to make a move on each other. It helps that the pair are also really funny, delivering off-the-cuff remarks that are at times laugh out loud funny. Cinematographer Ben Richardson (“Beasts of the Southern Wild“) gives the production a nice intimate feel which looks light years away from the uglier digital productions of just a few years ago.
Like several of his contemporaries who have recently made the jump into starrier casts and more polished productions (The Duplass Brothers with “Cyrus” and “Jeff Who Lives At Home,” Ry-Russo Young with “Nobody Walks” and Lynn Shelton with “Your Sister’s Sister” and “Touchy Feely“), Swanberg too has by all accounts turned a corner with his latest, winning over even critics who had previously written him off. While it’s not anything earth-shattering, anyone who enjoyed those films is likely to find much to like about “Drinking Buddies” as well.