Drinking Buddies is the quintessential indie drama in the worst way. Meandering and largely unscripted (for that “organic” feel, don’t you know), it features scenes heavy with long looks and few words and the awkwardness that’s inherent in putting actors in a room and letting them “discover” what their characters will say.
Writer/director Joe Swanberg has somewhat of a reputation for his slow, moody indie dramas. And while Drinking Buddies wasn’t as meandering and introspective as Silver Bullets (a waste of a movie), it did feel like a premise that hadn’t been completely thought out or followed through.
The problem with letting actors largely create dialogue and shape scenes, is that your film usually feels like a voyeuristic journey into a stranger’s living room. The conversations are, for the most part, pedantic and circular. Or worse, just casual nothing. All of this translated into a somewhat insipid indie drama that felt insubstantial and kind of pointless.
The basic plot in Drinking Buddies is this: two co-workers hang out and like each other. Then the film ends. As far as plot, not much more than that happens. The “drama” surrounds the fact that these co-workers are of the opposite sex, and that they drink and hang out a lot together, and that they both have significant others, and that there may or may not be some attraction between them beyond friendship.
When it comes to films like this, it’s all about the characters and their relationship dynamics. Olivia Wilde plays Kate, a young woman who works in a brewery and who has a close friendship with co-worker Luke (Jake Johnson). They go out drinking together, talk about their relationships, and engage in a lot of horseplay and flirting. Since they both have significant others, their relationship skirts the line and brings up questions about how close is too close when it comes to friends of the opposite sex.
It also deals with Luke’s fear of marriage and the life changes that brings. His long-time girlfriend (played by Anna Kendrick) is pressuring him to start thinking about getting married, and his relationship with co-worker Kate may or may not have something to do with how he’s feeling regarding marriage.
All the actors involved in Drinking Buddies bring their A-games to the table. As already discussed, this film gave the characters a lot of room to create their own dialogue and to create unscripted scenes. If any of the actors hadn’t stepped up, I think the movie would have been a lot worse than it was. As is, Drinking Buddies feels underdeveloped and unsubstantial as far as story goes, but the characters are extremely accessible and well-portrayed due to the caliber of the actors.
Johnson stole plenty of scenes in last year’s quirky romance Safety Not Guaranteed. In his role in Drinking Buddies, he takes on the part of an easy-going beer brewer and succeeds in presenting a likeable and realistic every-man. Ti West (director/writer/actor) makes an appearance too as a co-worker to Luke and Kate, and as usual comes across as a smug hipster type.
Kendrick keeps proving that she’s not just Twilight fodder as she takes on movie roles that prove her talent. Her insecure and sensitive almost-fiancée is a character that can potentially be unsympathetic for the audience. But Kendrick keeps the character from being dislikeable, and gives an interesting depth to a woman who has flirted with unfaithfulness.
Wilde is on point in her portrayal of the unlucky-in-love brewery employee. She’s charismatic and fun to watch, and her performance makes Ron Livingston’s (Office Space) seem even more placid in comparison. I’m not sure why Livingston chose to dial in his role as Kate’s upscale boyfriend, but his performance was somewhat lacking.
In the end, some snappy metaphor and actual plot elements might have helped Drinking Buddies out. A movie examining the issues of fear of commitment and marriage doesn’t have to be boring and insubstantial and Swanberg might actually start making compelling films if he tried a less “organic” approach.