REVIEW: ‘Drinking Buddies’

[Drinking Buddies begins its limited theatrical release in New York and Chicago today. This is a repost of a review originally posted July 31st]

You’re Tearing This Brewery Apart, Olivia!

Drinking Buddies offers some bold narrative choices, but it seems like there’s a lot more to praise about what it isn’t than what it actually is. Director Joe Swanberg, who apparently helped invent the mumblecore genre, or at least felt comfortable enough representing it that he beat up mumblecore hater Devin Faraci at a Fantastic Fest debate/boxing match last year (striking a blow for indie self-starters with video cameras everywhere), actually hired a cinematographer for his latest effort (Beasts of the Southern Wild‘s Ben Richardson). In another step towards the mainstream, he picked up known faces Olivia Wilde, Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston, and Jake Johnson for this relationship rhombus, which started on the film festival circuit and hit VOD in advance of the theatrical run, picking up many champions along the way, notably AO Scott at the New York Times.

I won’t go into how much Drinking Buddies either is or isn’t a mumblecore movie, as I have neither the experience nor the patience, and who really cares? A film’s genre is irrelevant to whether it’s good or not. But judged on its own merits, Drinking Buddies is pleasant enough, but the sexual tension it does such a great job building never quite materializes into much drama or comedy. It doesn’t do the predictable things, which is nice, but it could be so much weirder. Simply not being a traditional relationship movie doesn’t automatically equal insight. It has a nice sense of visual composition, and the characters have a natural and easy chemistry, but to borrow a criticism from my mom, it feels full of unrealized potential.

Foxy-without-makeup Kate (Olivia Wilde) and her exquisite jawline work at a brewery with hirsute trucker hat model Luke (Jake Johnson), where he’s a brewer and she’s the PR rep/event planner, the lone girl working there, a real just-one-of-the-guys type, who uses her sex appeal to attract male friends and then denies it to herself. Johnson dates a slightly squarer special ed teacher played by the adorable Anna Kendrick, while Wilde ships relations with a vaguely-defined music industry rich guy played by the great Ron Livingston in full five o’clock shadow. They all go on a double-date excursion to Livingston’s cabin together, and it isn’t a spoiler to say that each of the four is attracted to the other’s significant other. The idea of a boyfriend trade that’s beneficial to all parties seems a little too perfect (though when the girls are Anna Kendrick and Olivia Wilde it’s a distinct possibility), but even more than that, I have hard time buying the idea that a double date with a couple you barely just met would immediately evolve into you going on a picnic with another guy’s girlfriend in the woods while he and your special lady hang out at the cabin. Nope, don’t see it. But whatever, it’s a set up, I’ll go with it.

From this point on, the movie follows the Olivia Wilde-Jake Johnson relationship almost exclusively, which is unfortunate, because Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston seemed much more interesting. There’s a scene intercutting the two mismatched pairs as they flirt, and while Kendrick and Livingston talk about people and life on a hike, and actually seem to bond, Wilde and Johnson just sort of pull each others’ pigtails and hit each other with food like sixth graders. Their attraction is the kind based on mindless verbal sparring, where they flirt without really connecting. This is an astute observation about certain kinds of attraction, if we assume Drinking Buddies was conscious of making it, but it’s also kind of obnoxious to watch. (Though it does also lead to a skinny-dipping scene, YOWZA).

There are basically two extreme poles of dialog writing. On one end, you have things like Aaron Sorkin or Argo and Good Will Hunting, where the characters are always quick with a big, snappy speech that sums up what everyone’s thinking and express a character’s point of view in a way you wish you were articulate enough to do yourself. You get to live vicariously, cathartically through these better versions of you, and it feels good, because it’s flattering. On the opposite end, you have something like Lost, where characters can’t quite verbalize feelings the audience has known practically the whole time, creating that feeling of tragic longing, the romantic melancholy of people not being able to get out of their own way. Drinking Buddies is much closer to the Lost model, and while that’s not a bad thing, and is probably more believable in some ways, watching the characters constantly not say the obvious thing eventually bleeds over from compelling tension into something closer to contempt. Like, Jesus, are you idiots willfully autistic or what?

It’s essentially a movie about two people who are completely incapable of making the first move, so they just flirt with no follow through and drink compulsively instead. Dude, we get it, you work at a brewery. (And believe me, from this pint glass house I’m more than hesitant to throw glasses of Stone). At a certain point, it becomes tedious. It’s hard to watch characters constantly act so stupid when it’s not played for laughs, and it cuts against the authenticity the movie has been so carefully building. No person with half a brain over the age of 16 would think Kate and Luke’s flirting is innocent in any way. There isn’t much of a progression to it either, it’s obvious from the beginning, and is simply maintained.

The defense for this might be that their childishness was intentional, and that it’s not an immature work just because it’s about immature characters. I’ve used that argument myself to defend other works (Girls), but Drinking Buddies doesn’t use their immaturity to build something, it just fixates on it. At one point, a character flies home early from a vacation to deliver a guilt-ridden confession about making out with another boy months earlier. Really? What are you, 12? That all the characters act so childish without any seeming contrast or recognition makes the film seem childish itself.

Relationship movies (I won’t say rom-com, because Drinking Buddies didn’t feel like it was striving for zingy LOLs) often present love interests that you fall in love with yourself (Like Crazy and Silver Linings Playbook, hoo boy). So there’s an admirable punk rockness to Drinking Buddies giving us two people who don’t connect as well as they think they do, and a female lead who’s kind of a flaky phony. But despite the bold choices, I left feeling like the main takeaway was “Immature people gonna immature, I guess.”

Drinking Buddies is well acted, pretty, and avoids the Hollywood ending, but there are better options for avoiding a Hollywood ending than a Hollywood non-ending. Honesty is great, but hey, how ’bout some weirdness?


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