Editor’s Note: This review was originally part of our SXSW coverage, but Drinking Buddies is in theaters this weekend so stop messing around and go see it.
Joe Swanberg is one of a group of filmmakers who made their mark with movies that relied on improvisation more than script, 20 something ennui more than narrative and friends more than professional actors. This model works for some viewers, but it’s not designed to ever really appeal to the wider audiences.
His latest film, Drinking Buddies, keeps the improv method, but it still manages to tell a cohesive and truly affecting story. A big reason for that is a cast of extremely talented actors with wicked good comedic timing in the lead roles. The four performers, along with a more assured Swanberg directing and editing, have crafted a story about heartbreak, temptation and friendship.
Luke (Jake Johnson) and Kate (Olivia Wilde) are co-workers at a Chicago brewery who flirt harmlessly during the day and occasionally join other friends for drinks after work. He’s in a six year relationship with Jill (Anna Kendrick), who’s recently started talking about marriage again, while Kate is dating a music producer named Chris (Ron Livingston). The four become fast friends, but when Jill and Chris share a pretty hefty kiss during a friendly weekend getaway cracks start to grow in both relationships.
Events lead to more personal time between Luke and Kate, and the pair are forced to re-evaluate their playful banter as an attraction they actually feel for each other. Her relationship with Chris is crumbling, and Luke’s ready to bolt from the commitment Jill is asking for, but a workplace romance is rarely the solution to any of life’s problems. Or is it? Probably not. But maybe?
The lack of script doesn’t mean the theme and purpose are absent too as Swanberg knows exactly what story he wants to tell. But while improv’d dialogue in lesser hands (and wits) can feel stilted or lacking in energy the combination of talents both behind and in front of the camera make the laughs and pain sing with equal power and effect.
Johnson and Wilde are the core of the story here, and both deliver well beyond expectations. Johnson’s already proven himself repeatedly as a comic talent, but Luke’s journey is one of love challenged by temptation, and the various pains and affections play out across his heavily bearded face with a sedate urgency. Wilde usually finds herself on display strictly as a pretty face, but here she proves capable of displaying both a sharp wit and a powerful emotional core. She’s often hilarious, but there’s palpable heartache in her eyes as well.
Kendrick and Livingston have less to do, but they both show a strong affinity for the possibilities of improv. And while Jason Sudeikis has a small, uncredited roll as the head of the brewery and takes great advantage of his limited time, director Ti West is far less successful.
The film does take its sweet time forming and coalescing into a visible and powerful narrative, but once it does the affect is near overwhelming for anyone who’s ever faced similar circumstances. Flirtation at work can be a harmless and fun diversion from the daily grind, but it’s easy for those relationships to grow in unexpected ways when it really shouldn’t. The movie handles the scenario beautifully to show both the appeal and the danger within.
Drinking Buddies is easily Swanberg’s most accessible film yet thanks to the familiar faces, and while that alone is no guarantee of quality their talents combined with his focus have resulted in a fantastic and honest film that will strike a tender chord in many of us. The pull of attraction, the risk of infidelity and the power of love.
The Upside: The four leads are key to the laughs and the drama; Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson in particular stand out; raw and honest exploration of infidelity, attraction and the struggles worth fighting through for love.
The Downside: May take too long building core story; lack of a script is sometimes obvious; Ti West is still not an actor, and putting him in more movies doesn’t change that.
On the Side: Cinematographer Ben Richardson also shot Beasts of the Southern Wild (but don’t hold that against him).