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).