When it comes to films about relationships, whether they are platonic or romantic, we’re all going to have different takes on them. Naturally, how we view any film has a lot to do with our own experiences, but with such a personal topic, the influence of our feelings on the issues at hand are bound to shape what we take away from them. The best route for these films to take may then be one in which the story is distinctly individual without losing any of the intimacy — Drinking Buddies does just this.
Joe Swanberg may not be a particularly familiar name around cinemas or in your DVD collections, but with his first bigger-budget-bigger-actors film, he shows us exactly why he should soon be. Drinking Buddies is set in a somewhat unusual location for what is broadly considered a relationship comedy (but in reality is so much more) — a brewery. The two main characters work here, with Kate (Olivia Wilde) working in the office side of things and Luke (Jake Johnson, whom you may recognize from the TV show “New Girl“) being more involved in the manual labor. Regardless, the two work side by side, sharing everything from lunch breaks to inside jokes to the point where we’re surprised they’re not in a relationship. The reason for this, it seems, is that they are in fact already in relationships with other people: Luke’s been with teacher Jill (Anna Kendrick) for quite a while and Kate’s been with businessman Chris (Ron Livingston) for several months.
With its characters thus set up, the film then continues to probe into the nature and endurance of these relationships, in which both Kate and Luke’s significant others seem to be looking for something more serious. This isn’t restricted to the statuses of their relationships, either, as a weekend away for the four makes abundantly clear that Kate and Luke are more interested in drinking and having fun, while Jill and Chris prefer taking hikes or having intellectual conversations. In case you hadn’t grasped it already, the essential impression is that they’re all better suited for the people they’re not with. This may not sound like the most original premise, but rest assured you’ll rarely find a film of this genre that’s so refreshingly honest. Instead of the contrived direction many would force upon such a film, Swanberg brings us a story that is not just believable, but so introspectively thoughtful that we become really quite emotionally involved with these people.
Admittedly, any characters outside these central few aren’t given much screen time and fall away quickly, but honestly, I’d be surprised if after having seen the pure charisma and talent of these four, you even give the others a second thought. A large part of what helps Swanberg achieve such a natural tone is the fact that he doesn’t use a script; rather, actors are given a basic outline of the scene and tone and then must improvise their lines on set. While this makes their reactions to each other more authentic, it also requires a great deal of talent, especially when the dialog is so funny and intuitive. Wilde and Johnson particularly stand out, with Wilde’s role giving her a chance to show off her comedic skills in a complex and insightful performance, and Johnson being just undeniably likable and funny. Perhaps most beautiful though, is when they’re on screen together, and the chemistry is just unprecedented; it’s hard to believe they haven’t really been best friends for years. Anna Kendrick is also a real gem, bringing to her character a true sense of humanity — in all its graces and its flaws.
Critics of the film will point out that it sometimes seems to lack a sense of purpose or direction, and I’m inclined to agree. But it’s also important to bear in mind that the situation would be much the same in real life, and with such an inherently natural feel to the entire film, it can only be a deliberate endeavor to maintain its essence of unaffected candor. In a mature and yet light-hearted examination of the nature of friendship and romance — and the ever confusing overlap between the two — Drinking Buddies feels like you’ve witnessed the lives of some of your very own friends on a night at the pub.