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.

50/50

The worst result of a bad mattress I’ve ever seen

Real-life inspiration aside, the latest of several movies entitled 50/50 manages to deliver not only laughs, but competent drama.  This may seem like a herculean task in a film featuring Seth Rogen, but lest we forget, Donnie Darko also had him in it.

Rogen’s presence is a welcome one, being the comic relief of the film as well as the fictional counterpart to his real-life role as Will Reiser’s close friend.  The cast is captained by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who provides the “dram” half of the dramedy.  He plays Adam Lerner, a radio host who, despite his almost obsessively healthy lifestyle, is diagnosed with a rare spinal cancer.  His girlfriend, Rachel (Bryce Dallas Howard), prematurely agrees to take care of him, having no idea what she’s in for, and things go quite badly for the relationship when she experiences even the first level of Adam’s sickness.  Adam’s mother, Diane (Anjelica Huston) has almost no one left, seeing as her husband (Serge Houde) is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.  Rounding out the cast is the adorable Anna Kendrick, who plays Katherine, Adam’s young therapist.

Katherine is the film’s breath of fresh air, however obvious it may be that she and Adam are headed for an unethical romantic relationship the first time she gives him a ride home.  She provides what I suspect is one of the film’s most meaningful lines – “I’m not good at getting rid of stuff” – when Adam comments on her disaster of a car.  Kyle (Rogen) attempts to support Adam while also using his cancer to meet women, which leads to some funny moments, and Adam’s mother smothers him with care, despite his refusal to call her back most of the time.  These tough situations, along with Adam’s worsening condition, lead to some great conflicts and build to some heart-wrenching moments.  Interestingly, Adam’s character isn’t incredibly likable when the story begins; he seems to loosen up and spread his wings after his diagnosis.  Speaking of which, the doctor who gives Adam the news does so in such a bored, routine manner that he might be a janitor mopping the floor.  I was stunned to see Adam return to him later.  As Roger Ebert said in his review, “would it kill the son of a bitch to make [the odds] 60/40?”

The film relies on the concept itself – a young person becoming sick and dying – in order to deliver its primary drama.  If you know anyone who has had cancer, especially through the later stages, you know it’s far worse than portrayed here (although you may chalk it up to the fact that this is a feel-good film and, if you want to go this route, that Adam’s cancer was operable).  In addition, the inclusion of an Alzheimer’s-afflicted father feels thrown in, as it doesn’t seem to affect Adam very much (I think he only says two lines to his father in the whole film), and might better serve a film centering around Diane, as he is largely her responsibility.

One of the best moments of the film is the convergence of all the people who orbit Adam throughout the film (other than Rachel, who is ousted in an emotionally-confused and rather mean-spirited scene on Adam’s porch).

I am surprised Adam lasts as long as he does before throwing a screaming fit.  Scenes like this provide some real tear-inducing moments, which is commendable for a film pitched as a feel-good comedy.  The story ends in the perfect moment, an opportunity most films miss, with Katherine posing a question to Adam, a question all film heroes must face when their adventures end.  I think Adam might be one character who knows how to answer.

50/50 (2011); written by Will Reiser; directed by Jonathan Levine; starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anna Kendrick, Seth Rogen and Anjelica Huston.