Drinking Buddies doggedly refuses to be the movie it looks like. Its four lead actors are good-looking charmers, and the plot is ostensibly about the romantic entanglements between them. But the usual tropes of romantic comedy do not interest writer/director Joe Swanberg, who had his start with the mumblecore movement. He brazenly eschews all character development and the easy laugh, and instead goes for realism that’s borderline frustrating. Many recent independent movies have characters with whom it’s easy to identify. This one has the sense of confirmation, with the bonus of an uncomfortable wince.
Kate (Olivia Wilde) is in charge of sales for Chicago micro-brewing company, and she’s friend with the brewer Luke (Jake Johnson). They thrive in a relaxed work environment – another beer is always welcome – and the end of their workday regularly transitions into more drinking. Kate and Luke are also in relationships: she’s dating Chris (Ron Livingston), who’s a little bit older; he’s dating Jill (Anna Kendrick), who probably worries that Luke drinks too much. We never hear them make plans, but the centerpiece of Drinking Buddies is a weekend at Chris’ beach house. Both he and Jill embark on a long hike while Kate and Luke lounge at the beach. This shift in relationship dynamics creates a subtle but genuine rift among the four: Luke emotionally cheats with Kate, while the transgression between Chris and Jill is physical.
Aside from the brief weekend vacation, not that much happens in Drinking Buddies. There is some initial fallout after the two couples part ways – Chris dumps Kate, to her chagrin – yet Swanberg would rather film his characters as they hang out. They live their lives as if they don’t know they’re characters in a movie, which is both a fresh of air and (intentionally?) annoying. In the scene when Luke and Kate introduce their new significant others, respectively, the dialogue provides absolutely zero indication that they all get along. There are few occasions where anyone says what they’re thinking, and it usually happens when they’re drunk.
This deliberately obtuse storytelling creates a sense of discomfort because Swanberg abandons typical structure, but it’s also freeing since we’re able to watch the characters in other ways. Minor development happens just under the surface of inebriation. The movie culminates with a long weekend where Kate and Luke are alone – Jill went on vacation with her friends – and Swanberg teases romantic possibilities, only to destroy them with brutal realism. In his own way, he’s a delightfully subversive filmmaker.
Swanberg’s cast only compounds the initial confusion. Wilde notwithstanding, the four leads all cut their teeth with popular romantic comedies, so their mere presence creates a certain set of expectations. It must be refreshing for them to play characters defined by their realism, not their growth. There is an uncomfortable scene where Luke and Jill discuss their future, and Kendrick’s timid approach to the issue is pitch-perfect and eerily familiar. Wilde is almost too beautiful to play a character who wallows in a booze-fueled funk, yet there’s a self-destructive streak to her performance that makes it all work (she might be the only character with an actual drinking problem). When she finally confronts Luke, it’s not entirely clear what they’re arguing about and the scene nonetheless works because both the actors and Swanberg had the confidence to let the tension build.
I’ve long been bothered with how the movies treat heavy drinking. Many movies use drinking as a symptom of a bigger problem; there have been countless scenes where our lovelorn hero turns to booze after the guy/girl of their dreams just dumps them. When there are movies where a character drinks a lot from the get-go, it’s usually considered problematic (e.g. The Spectacular Now). Drinking Buddies is the rare movie where people drink heavily, and it’s just part of who they are. This is refreshing (pun intended), and it also recognizes an uncomfortable truth. A drinking buddy is only as reliable as when they’re sober, and without the beer goggles, you may not necessarily enjoy the company of the person who always orders shots after you told them they shouldn’t.