Deceptively marketed as a breezy romantic comedy, Drinking Buddies would be more aptly described as a movie about the complexities and compromises of relationships, the little things that are instrumental in making partnerships work. Credit writer-director Joe Swanberg for giving his strong cast the freedom to explore the weighty ideas his film’s simple set-up brings bubbling to the surface, like infidelity, loneliness and immaturity.
As Drinking Buddies opens, we think we know where it’s headed. The flighty, frivolous Kate (Olivia Wilde) works in a Chicago brewery with Luke (Jake Johnson), her emotional equal in every way. They get through the daily grind by immaturely drinking, flirting and reveling in the potent will-they-won’t-they chemistry that they’ve constructed almost effortlessly. The only problem: both are already in relationships. Luke is on the verge of marrying Jill (Anna Kendrick), his attentive and gracious girlfriend of six years, while Kate is dancing around committing to her music-producer boyfriend Chris (Ron Livingston).
The mismatched-couples scenario has been done to death by Hollywood rom-coms, so Swanberg deserves a great deal of praise for never falling into clichés whilst dealing with the tangled romances at the heart of Drinking Buddies. The answers he provides to questions of love and happiness aren’t easy or even fully-formed ones, which marks a refreshing departure from formula. This is a film where not a lot happens – even at only 90 minutes, the pace is markedly unhurried. Sometimes the easy way in which the plot progresses is a little frustrating, but Swanberg mostly makes it work.
Drinking Buddies belongs to the mumblecore subgenre. The dialogue is entirely improvised, which lends the movie an appealingly naturalistic air while allowing its cast the opportunity to hone both dramatic and comedic muscles. Luckily, Swanberg has an eye for cozy camera angles, so lulls in dialogue don’t cause the film to grind to a halt. With intimately shot apartments, warmly lit bars and a vibrant life that touches even the near-empty brewery where Luke and Kate work, the set-pieces in Drinking Buddies are oddly personable, almost like secondary characters.
Though the film was billed as having four leads, Drinking Buddies is unequivocally Wilde’s show. Turning in a wonderfully layered, lived-in performance, Wilde grabbed my attention with the skill of a seasoned pro. Kate is a flawed, manic but essentially lovable character, bursting with emotion and insecurities, and the actress plays her perfectly. Whether she’s skittishly navigating her relationship with Chris, easily shifting into a playful repartee with Luke or holding the screen all by herself, Kate is a thoroughly engaging, believable protagonist. If it hadn’t been such a packed year in cinema, Wilde might have been considered a serious contender for a 2014 Spirit Award nomination.
Johnson also does great work in the role of Luke, a guy trapped between an imperfect relationship and a friend with whom he shares an immediate, intimate bond. Sporting an unruly, mountain-man beard, Johnson essentially depicts Luke as a variation on his New Girl character Nick, but the film’s final act allows him to dig deeper beneath that character’s playfully evasive exterior to bring out a desperately uncertain, deeply relatable core.
Though Kendrick and Livingston both take a backseat to Wilde and Johnson, they deliver smart, charismatic performances. Kendrick’s Jill is an amiable, quietly anxious girlfriend struggling to reconcile her desire for security and a family with her and Luke’s tacit agreement to keep their romance fun and low-maintenance. The actress leaves a strong impression, though Swanberg’s script unwisely takes her off-screen for the film’s final third. Livingston’s Chris also suffers from lack of screen-time. However, his quietly frustrated, thinking-man character is still effectively conveyed through the actor’s understated, creative performance.
In Drinking Buddies, beer is a refuge, a religion, a barrier, a social norm and a symbol of carefree youth. Beer creates a hazy uncertainty that blurs lines in the characters’ relationships and perceptions of themselves, but it’s received almost like another cast member. As Kate and Luke gradually arrive at the revelation that they’re ready to move on from the blithe vitality of their twenties, beer also acts as that glimmering, intangible prize, a Fitzgerald-esque green light forever out of reach by virtue of them having already moved past it. Luke and Kate’s journey in the film leads them to the revelation that they are happy enough to stop looking back and wondering, “What if?” Luckily, as the characters fall into each other and arrive at their own conclusions about love, life and adulthood, Swanberg’s supremely confident direction prevents the whole affair from collapsing into romantic schmaltz.
Drinking Buddies isn’t an easy movie to watch; it poses big questions and only ever hints at the answers. Swanberg’s steadfast refusal to adhere to rom-com formula is as invigorating as it is sometimes maddening, and the lack of a tidy ending (or any real ending whatsoever) will leave some viewers unsatisfied. The short amount of screen-time allotted for Kendrick and Livingston also disappoints, as their potent chemistry hints at another side to Drinking Buddies‘ story of messy, modern-day relationships that really should have been explored further. Despite its faults though, a winning cast, confident direction and originality make Drinking Buddies an unexpected, not-at-all-guilty pleasure.
The Blu-Ray’s 1080p High Definition transfer renders colors sufficiently vibrant and brings out small details, including everything from the characters’ clothes to the glistening, golden appearance of the countless beers that Kate and Luke consume. A 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio Track is typically enough to preserve the clarity of dialogue and background sound effects, though I must note that the audio dips distractingly low in a few small scenes. That quibble aside, Magnolia Pictures’ release is characteristically solid.
The film comes outfitted with a ton of special features, including:
- Deleted Scenes/Outtakes – with Optional Writer/Director Commentary
- Interview with Olivia Wilde
- Interview with Jake Johnson
- Interview with Anna Kendrick
- Interview with Ron Livingston
- AXS TV: A Look at Drinking Buddies
- All Things Drinking with Writer/Director Joe Swanberg and “Drinking Made Easy” Host Zane Lamprey
- Behind the Scenes at Revolution Brewing
- Commentary with Writer/Director Joe Swanberg, Producer Andrea Roa and Producer Alicia Van Couvering
The deleted scenes and outtakes offer additional moments of Jake Johnson being charming and a handful of scenes that explore Chris’s career as a music producer (barely touched upon in the actual movie). Watch out for a very funny scene with an uncredited Jason Sudeikis, playing Kate’s smarmy supervisor. Later, a scene set at the cabin proves that Olivia Wilde is even more endearing when she’s totally smashed. The improvised nature of dialogue makes for some great takes and hilarious lines that I wish had made it into the final cut.
All of the interviews are short and sweet, clocking in at under five minutes each. In Wilde’s interview, she discusses Drinking Buddies‘ reputation as a comedy, her favorite scenes and the challenges of improvising on-set. Her meditations on the role of beer in the film provide some tantalizing food for thought.
Johnson focuses more on his character’s relationship with Kate and what drew him to Drinking Buddies. Kendrick’s interview was my favorite, as she efficiently fleshes out her character and talks about the messy dynamic between Jill, Luke, Kate and Chris. And in his interview, Livingston explores layers to his character that were left on the cutting room floor in the final cut of the film. He also wins points for connecting Drinking Buddies to its thematic precursor, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.
One constant throughout the interviews is the fondness with which the cast members recall their time shooting Drinking Buddies – Wilde reminisces about the great on-set atmosphere, Johnson and Kendrick enthusiastically recall how they drank real Chicago beer in the film and Livingston discusses how the brief shoot and improvised script required him to really think on his feet.
The AXS TV spot is very standard press-kit stuff, as per usual, so if you’ve checked out the other bonus features, particularly the interviews, don’t bother with it.
“All Things Drinking” is a refreshingly laid-back conversation between Swanberg and Lamprey that allows the director to discuss the difficulties of filming Drinking Buddies in the distinctly spontaneous and naturalistic way that he did. Viewers also get the added hilarity of watching the pair navigate through various glasses of beer as they attempt to discuss the film’s finer points. Well-worth a watch.
Next, a behind-the-scenes featurette at Revolution Brewing takes viewers inside the brewing company where much of Drinking Buddies was filmed. Many fans of the movie won’t be too thrilled to explore the more technical aspects of brewing, but interested viewers will find a lot to like in the informative bit.
Finally, the commentary with Swanberg and two producers is surprisingly involving and funny. Fans of the film seeking insight into how Swanberg conceived and staged scenes should definitely check it out, and casual viewers will also get some big laughs out of the trio’s gleefully raunchy observations.
When taken as a whole, the Blu-Ray set is well-assembled, with a solid transfer and adequate audio, as well as above-average bonus features. As for the film itself, Drinking Buddies is not flawless, but I’d still say that it’s worth a watch.
Drinking Buddies is not perfect by a long stretch, but an excellent cast and Swanberg's assured direction make it all go down smoothly.