Drinking Buddies

Lager than life

DBJoe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies operates on multiple levels: it’s a movie about intimate human interaction between unique characters, and it’s also a movie about craft beer, although if you’re a non-drinker (like me), thoughts about whether the characters’ respective levels of drunkenness in any given scene are affecting what they say might not occur to you until later.  The alcohol is more or less a prop that provides a little image cycle (not a pattern, exactly).  As a result, the film has a very distinct flavor.

Witty and outgoing Kate (Olivia Wilde) and teddy-bearish Luke (Jake Johnson) are the titular “buddies,” coworkers at a Chicago brewery who share an extremely chummy rapport.  Those of us who understand that opposite-sex heterosexuals are perfectly capable of sharing meaningful, platonic friendships would probably not bat an eye (though we might wonder what kind of couple they’d make).  Luke is in a relationship with Jill (Anna Kendrick), who wants to marry him and is growing tired of waiting for a straight answer (though she’s never stereotypically pushy or catty about it), and Kate has been dating Chris (Ron Livingston, who recently played a Pinkerton agent on Boardwalk Empire) for a few months.  He’s introverted, loves the wilderness, and would rather be reading than downing beers at a bar all night.  How they came to be together is a mystery that remains unplumbed.

The couples spend some time together at Chris’s family’s cottage, and an immediate connection is made between Jill and Chris, who share a sudden kiss in the woods.  Chris subsequently breaks up with Kate, but not for the sake of trying to date Jill – simply because he realizes that things aren’t working.  Kate goes into a bit of a drunken funk and must move out of her apartment with the help of Luke, a situation that creates more than a little bit of “will they, won’t they” tension.  But the story of these characters does not end where fans of this type of film might expect it to; it ends where it would and probably should: where it began (“cycles” is still the key word).

The film contains plenty of very long shots, some of which mean something and some of which don’t.  A long shot of Kate riding her bike, for example, could have been cut from fifteen seconds to three and still served the same purpose.  However, an extended shot of Kate walking upstairs, removing her shoes, beholding the sleeping form of Luke, who is exhausted from a full day of moving her furniture, thinking long and hard about what to do, and then carefully sliding into bed next to him, contains the entire heart of the film in itself.  The non-frantic handheld camera, sweeping from important thing to important thing, is vital for these types of shots, particularly because of the character whose reactions we’re supposed to (to a point) share, despite the fact that we still see her.

Has Olivia Wilde done anything this impressive in the past few years?  I keep thinking of movies like Burt Wonderstone, Cowboys & Aliens, and Tron: Legacy, in which she played the token female character meant only to motivate or tempt the Boring Hero, giving her few layers to explore.  Here, she’s funny, cocky, and full of swagger, but also sensitive, frustrated, and loving (but never “nurturing”) at the same time.  Her speech, drunken or not, devolves into Goldbluming several times, and it’s a treat.  How much of her Kate stuff was improvised?  If you run into her, can you ask her for me?  This is a masterful comedy performance, but also a complete character.  There’s also Jake Johnson, about whom I cannot say enough, though he essentially plays another version of Nick Miller from New Girl.

I hesitate to think about the drinking games that could be applied to viewings of this film.

Drinking Buddies (2013); written and directed by Joe Swanberg; starring Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, and Ron Livingston.

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