In Drinking Buddies, writer/director Joe Swanberg explores the complex dynamic surrounding friends of the opposite gender. Can they stay just friends? How do they decipher each other’s actions? And most importantly, how does their friendship affect the relationships with the people they actually are dating?
The movie tells the story of Luke (Jake Johnson) and Kate (Olivia Wilde), two co-workers at a craft brewery who spend their time together flirting and having great conversations. It’s everything they would want in a significant other, which would make their relationship perfect, if they weren’t already in relatively happy relationships with other people. Their current relationships begin to crumble though when Luke’s girlfriend is kissed by Kate’s boyfriend, an event which the two drinking buddies are completely unaware of.
That isn’t a revolutionary new story, in fact, it’s the set-up for a good majority of rom-coms, but Swanberg makes it his own by attacking the direction of the plot that comes after the set-up in a unique way. What sets Drinking Buddies apart from many similar films is Kate and Luke don’t cheat on their significant others. They don’t spend the movie dealing with the guilt of such actions. It’s all drumroll, no song. Rather than being unsatisfying, that take on the situation provides a unique, and thus interesting story.
But the story wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if it weren’t for the phenomenal performances from the leads. Both Wilde and Johnson are great actors, and they shine in each and every scene that they’re in. Their chemistry on screen makes it seem as if they’ve been dating since they were children, and that’s a difficult level to reach. If I was forced to pick one reason to definitely recommend this movie, it would be the opportunity to watch those two play off each other. Hopefully the success of their performances in this film will lead to many more team-ups in the future.
Wilde plays “one of the guys” extremely well. She’s completely believable in the role, and it makes for a very fun character to watch. Her banter with her co-workers is great, and her character is easily the most likeable in the film. But as fun as her lighter moments are, it’s her vulnerability that really sets her apart. It’s hard to picture Wilde having much experience dealing with rejection, but she deftly conveys the subtleties of someone trying to balance friendship with feelings of something more when those feelings aren’t necessarily reciprocated. That’s a feeling most people have experienced, and Wilde’s portrayal captures it perfectly, while still never being overly direct.
As for Johnson, he’s rapidly proving that he is indeed one of the most enjoyable actors working today. He captures the highs and the lows of Luke with such skill that the character instantly becomes completely relatable. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Johnson’s leading major studio features in the next few years.
The dialogue in the film is absolutely phenomenal. There are few movies that feel as real, and as raw as this one does. A large part of that has to be due to the stellar acting by all four members of the main cast, but still, credit must go to Swanberg for allowing the actors to be comfortable and play off each other. Everything is natural, while still remaining in the constraints of tight scenes with very interesting conversations. The result is that even when not all that much is happening, it doesn’t feel like there’s any lull in the film.
Billed as a comedy, Drinking Buddies really isn’t all that funny, despite such a comedically talented cast. That isn’t a bad thing at all though. Instead of being bogged down by searching for laughs, Swanberg instead lets the story flow in a natural progression, with pleasant moments of humor scattered throughout. The comedy in this is a light seasoning- enough for an enjoyable taste, but not so potent that it masks the taste of what’s beneath.
Still, as many such slice-of-life films struggle with, the movie is a bit too light on plot. The quiet moments are extremely well done, but they’re far too prevalent. There are far too many scenes that leave a “so what” feeling. Don’t get me wrong, on their own, those scenes are great, but as a whole there’s just not enough substance for the film to reach the level of its acting and direction. I’m all for a simple narrative, but when the story gets too simple and something feels missing, the movie would likely benefit from a bit more story.
The fact Drinking Buddies is still able to be so enjoyable and entertaining, even without as complete of a story as I would’ve liked, is a great testament to Swanberg’s direction and writing. The characters he created and the scenes he put them in are all wonderful, and they’re played to perfection by the cast. That’s where the film’s strongest moments are found, in the interactions between the characters, and the real moments they experience, moments almost everyone can relate to. In the end, Drinking Buddies is like a pretty good night at the bar. Really enjoyable, filled with plenty of interesting people to keep you entertained, but looking back, you still feel like something better could’ve happened.