Joe Swanberg’s “Drinking Buddies,” which hits theaters August 23, is a portrait of individuals navigating the slippery
slope of relationships, both romantic and platonic, and quietly, often
hilariously nodding to the unspoken intersection of the two.
Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) are brewery
workers and close friends, drinking on the job, comme d’habitude, and enjoying an ongoing flirtation made up of
teasing, playful shoving and the occasional glance that lasts too long. At the
outset of the film, both are unavailable. Luke is in a long-term relationship
with Jill (Anna Kendrick), a smiley and sweet special education teacher who
seems to be a good fit for him. Kate is in a considerably more recent relationship
with the slightly older Chris (Ron Livingston), a pleasant oddball with vague
Very little unfolds in a conventional plotting sense throughout
“Drinking Buddies.” The two couples stay for a weekend at Chris’ seaside cabin,
and then return; Luke and Kate continue their nightly habit of beer-drinking and pool-playing with the brewery staffers
before heading to their respective homes; Jill decides to go on a college
reunion trip to Costa Rica. A break-up occurs, revealed not through a scene but
a well-placed edit.
The film instead focuses on the tension — palpable and
undetected — that occurs moment to moment in relationships, and on the characters’
fleeting, constantly evolving and multi-faceted reactions to each other. Kate,
the lone woman at the brewery and apparently also in her network of friends,
has a one-of-the-guys goofiness that covers up her insecurity about being
accepted by men. During a funny and sad moment, she tells Luke that the love of
her life, now lost to dating history, broke up with her by saying that their
relationship needed “to take a knee.”
Luke isn’t so much caught between two very appealing women as
he is floating between them. He’s aware that with one lean-in or hand placement
his situation would immediately become morally precarious, but — somewhat
refreshingly — he doesn’t judge
himself too harshly, rather feeling the edges of his predicament, neither
committed to resisting it nor convinced that it’s worth pushing. Jill, surprised
by a sudden attraction to Chris early in the film, carries the weight of guilt
with her. Either prompted by this outside assailing attraction or not, she gently broaches the idea of marriage with Luke, a topic that has been discussed
in the past and left hanging.
On paper, the long-term girlfriend looking for marriage is a
fairly thankless role, but neither Swanberg nor a very good Kendrick let this
happen. Kendrick is one of the more charming young actors working right now, usually
hitting a sweet spot between girl-next-door appeal and intensely focused nerdiness. She’s hilarious in the film, as is Wilde, who digs into her spastic
tomboy role with a natural confidence. Johnson, hidden behind a scruffy beard
and frayed baseball cap, gives Luke a sincerity and quiet frustration, while
Livingston makes his short screen time count, making Chris at once socially
reluctant but strangely self-possessed.
Swanberg forgoes his multi-hyphenate as cinematographer here and
hands the camera over to Ben Richardson (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”), who
retains the director’s spontaneous, detail-sensitive shooting style while
adding a pleasantly professional sheen to the proceedings. If Swanberg’s best work in eight years of filmmaking, “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” looks at the constant struggle of young people
to articulate what they want — both to others and themselves — “Drinking
Buddies” works as the slightly more grown-up version of that, and indeed rivals the 2007 film.
Kate, Luke, Jill and Chris, anywhere from a few to many years
older than Greta Gerwig’s insatiably awkward Hannah, know what they’re drawn
to, but, with more life experience and commitment under their belts, are in a
perpetual state of indecision — is the thing one wants the thing that’s best?
Swanberg, like his characters, doesn’t push for an answer, but rather lets
things drift in a remarkably realistic way. People move toward each other and
then away, and it can all happen in an instant. And then, in the next instant,
it begins over again.
“Drinking Buddies” hits theaters August 23. It is currently on VOD.