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Entries in Drinking Buddies [2013] (1)

Tuesday
Feb042014

Drinking Buddies (2013)

The Brew Code

I'm not familiar with Joe Swanberg as a filmmaker, but that's going to change. Sure, I've seen him act in movies like V/H/S and You're Next, but before watching Drinking Buddies, I had no idea just how much talent he has as a writer, director, and editor. To be fair, it has been reported that much of the movie's dialogue was achieved through improv. But it takes a creator of considerable skill to draw such soulful spontaneity out of his actors and then put them together in a way that makes everything feel so purposeful.

The film's strength lies in Swanberg's constant toying with audience expectations. In the first ten minutes, he establishes a premise we've seen a thousand times in a thousand terrible rom-coms (and some good ones), and then lets us squirm through eighty more minutes of dashed expectations. We meet a brewery admin named Kate (Olivia Wilde), whose flirtatious relationship with co-worker Luke (Jake Johnson) spells trouble for her boyfriend of eight months, Chris (Ron Livingston)--not to mention Luke's long-time girlfriend, Jill (Anna Kendrick). So in denial of their burgeoning romance, so in love with the idea of "just being friends", they orchestrate a trip to Chris' family cabin for a weekend of hiking, drinking, and--whoops!--making out with the wrong partner.

Conventional movies about twenty-somethings usually save the big mistake or the big misunderstanding for the B.S. climax--after which everything is neatly resolved. The well-observed Drinking Buddies follows flirtation and infidelity to their logical conclusions, which are far from tidy. Consequences abound as characters free themselves up to explore different possibilities, while others dance on the edge of leaping from their relational safety nets. Swanberg doesn't let anyone off the hook, including the audience. Sorry for being vague. Half the film's cringe-y fun is knowing the bad choices awaiting these likable, relatable young adults and rooting for them to navigate a series of Choose Your Own Adventure: Heartbreak Edition stories.

The other half of the fun is enjoying great, surprising performances from actors you may only associate with bigger, more mainstream projects. Wilde sets aside the goddess-sculpted perfection she radiates in makeup commercials and blockbuster-wannabes like Cowboys & Aliens and TRON: Legacy to show us a truly down-to-earth woman who has a lot to learn about the power she wields over men.

Kendrick softens the facade of self-assuredness that made her such a stand-out in Up in the Air and Pitch Perfect to deliver a performance that could have easily been played as too vulnerable. Her Jill finds a lot to like in Chris's stoic intellectual that she just doesn't get from Luke--but her inherent goodness muddies the emotional waters and leads to one of the tenderest outpourings of honesty I've seen.

Though Drinking Buddies is ostensibly a four-actor piece, Livingston doesn't stick around for very long. This is a story about young people learning to responsibly handle emotions, after all, and as Kate's older boyfriend, he simply doesn't have the time or the energy to invest in something he knows from experience won't work out. 

And then there's Johnson. Luke is the trickiest character in the film because we can see he's a good guy with a devious current running just beneath the surface. The film builds and builds and builds to the moment when he'll inevitably profess his feelings for Kate, but circumstances prevent us (and him) from seeing if he's really got the stones to make a move.* As a performer, Johnson deftly ping-pongs the audience's opinion of Luke, painting him at once as a likable, funny everyman and as a caged predator waiting for someone else to undo the lock. It's a solid performance, undone only by his rather gross beard--which threw me because it didn't show up in the poster; that's a silly thing to note, I suppose, but I kept waiting for the scene where Luke goes under the razor.

If I have one nit to pick with Drinking Buddies, it's that I can't vouch for its authenticity. Though filmed in an actual Chicago brewery and local neighborhoods, I couldn't help but wonder if employees drinking nothing but beer all day was an embellishment on Swanberg's part, or a stranger-than-fiction detail he'd picked up somewhere. It's kind of like setting a movie in a Crayola factory where the boss signs everyone's checks with a washable marker.

That nonsense aside, I have no complaints and tons of praise for this honest, challenging little film. Those who look at the cast list and expect something more predictable may be turned off. Instead of making a movie for fans of romantic comedies, Swanberg has delivered something special for fans of romance and comedy.

*Swanberg seems to be a student of the Clive Barker relationship school: as in Hellraiser, Drinking Buddies contains a scene where a guy cutting his hand on a nail while moving a couch lays bare all the emotional information we need about the principal characters.