“I am a bourgeois pig”
I really liked Drinking Buddies and I’ll admit I wasn’t sure that would be the case. The Mumblecore movement has always been one that has eluded me—well, the early stuff at least since I have found myself enjoying what the Duplass Brothers have done post success—and the prolific Joe Swanberg comes off as a “love him or hate him” kind of auteur. But how could this thing go wrong with a cast of Olivia Wilde (Kate), Jake Johnson (Luke), Anna Kendrick (Jill), and Ron Livingston (Chris) let alone not at least be interesting courtesy of the entirety being improvisation based on plot outlines? You don’t get more real in cinema than having your actors truly own their characters by bringing them to life in the moment and that’s exactly what Swanberg has achieved.
Shot on location at a Chicago, IL craft brewery, the story focuses on the easy, flirtatious friendship formed between two employees. Luke is a brewer, constantly by the kegs and vats doing his thing while Kate serves as office manager, main tasting station bartender, party planner, and all-around face of the company. Both are in a relationship with Jill and Chris respectively, but neither keeps them from having a good time playing pool or goofing off whenever the opportunity presents itself. In fact, the two are so close that they find themselves on a double date weekend at Chris’ family’s cottage. The brief retreat sees them pairing off with the wrong significant other as we’d assume, but the results aren’t quite as obvious. And with clichéd and lazy scriptwriting nonexistent, honest reactions can take their place.
What follows is an accurate portrayal of the complexities of relationships and the caveats of opposite sex friendships full of romantic tension. In another world Kate and Luke would be together—probably the best couple you could ever meet—but this is not it. As a result, beyond their flirtations lies an awkwardness they each contrastingly pretend is and isn’t there. When one feels the connection, the other is thinking about the person waiting for him/her at home and vice versa. It doesn’t stop them from judging each other’s actions with either out-loud or inferred body language opinions that say they do not approve, however. But since they aren’t actually a couple, it’s tough to reconcile the notion they both want the other to care while also knowing it simply cannot be emotionally allowed.
The crux than becomes whether this friendship evolves, especially once Chris tells Kate it isn’t working out. This provides one more opportunity for Wilde to showcase a level of feeling she hasn’t been allowed to share until now. Kate is a woman who openly says has a lot of love to give, but also one who may not quite be able to control it when hardship and disappointment rear their ugly heads. She yearns to share it and may do things while inebriated that she wouldn’t otherwise do, but we see the pain beneath her cool and calm façade and understand her insecurities and want for more. So how will she react to Chris dumping her—an older, simpler guy who questions what she ever saw in him? Will she push Luke to make a move?
But while this would be the normal one-note conflict of a generic romantic comedy, Swanberg ensures that we also see Luke as a complicated soul wrestling with his own notions of love and commitment. Johnson plays the role with a jovial personality tempered by complete confidence and fearlessness with a tint of machismo when the moment asks. He and Kendrick’s Jill are somewhat dissimilar with her quieter and more introspective teacher testing his barhopping brewer from another world with the question of marriage, but their union is solid because of it. And while such truths make us delve back in our minds for hypotheses on what trope will come in to derail everything, we forget that maybe their love will be enough to endure. Maybe Kate will end up making what they have stronger.
That doesn’t mean Kate and Luke won’t put themselves in situations ripe for infidelity, it only forces the actors to discover exactly where their characters’ heads are. Does the flirting carry with it some deeper-seeded turmoil and therefore allude to their coming together as the release they each need to exit a life they find themselves stuck in? Or is it genuinely just too young people having fun and enjoying each other’s company with no emotional strings attached besides a platonic love they know should remain where it is? These questions culminate in his helping her move apartments while Jill is away in Costa Rica—a simple, boring act on the surface yet full of undertones that cannot help make them figure out their motivations and define exactly what the spark between them is.
And it’s all made more enjoyable when you hear the cast talk about the fluid process and the challenge of discovering what to do in any given situation. Hearing Wilde explain how her telling Swanberg she was going to strip naked in front of Luke and go into the water at Chris’ cottage was met with a “Sure, let’s see what Jake does” is brilliant. She believed Kate would be uninhibited and it was Jake’s call to follow. She and we assume he will being a stereotypical hot-blooded male, but Drinking Buddies isn’t about stereotype. Not every fun-loving guy cares solely about sex and not every “nice” girl is beyond transgression—we’re all capable of surprising ourselves and each other and Swanberg captures that unpredictability, putting a mirror up to our own complexities in the process.
 Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson in DRINKING BUDDIES, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
 Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston in DRINKING BUDDIES, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
 Olivia Wilde in DRINKING BUDDIES, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.