Drinking Buddies offers a refreshingly candid look at relationships from the perspective of the romantic comedy genre. While the film explores similar themes and questions around relationships and monogamy that we’ve seen from director Joe Swanberg’s films in the past, Drinking Buddies is something special. Arguably his best film yet, he accomplishes something rarely found in feature films today, that perfect mix of indie Art House feel and mass appeal. It’s not so obscure that it alienates the general audience, but it also avoids being formulaic. It’s the culmination of Swanberg’s mumblecore roots combined with a narrative structure (or lack there of) that works to create a story utterly authentic in nature. For 20-somethings everywhere, watching this film will feel like watching real life.
Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) are best friends and co-workers at a craft brewery in Chicago. The two are so close that it’s not hard to see there is some serious potential for something more than a platonic relationship. There’s only one problem, they’re both dating other people. Kate is dating the older but not necessarily more mature Chris (Ron Livingston), while Luke is involved in a more serious partnership with his live in girlfriend, Jill (Anna Kendrick). When the two couples take a trip to Chris’s family vacation house, sparks begin to fly, but where will they land? At first glance, the storyline is not something one would exactly categorized as remarkable, instead the narrative lends itself toward the fact that it’s not a film dealing with some alternate reality to the world in which we live, and that’s sort of the beauty of it all. A seemingly simple story is transformed by incorporating some unconventional elements of storytelling, including heavily improvised dialog and a loose narrative, and the audience is presented with something truly remarkable. Something real.
Of course, this wouldn’t be possible without great acting, and lucky for Swanberg, Drinking Buddies boasts an extremely talented group of actors. The performances delivered by all work together to exemplify a naturalistic quality. Ultimately though, it’s Wilde who really moves the story along, as Swanberg explores the show the relationship between Jill and Luke both from an insiders perspective and also from an outsiders perspective through Kate’s eyes, whose opinion may also be a bit biased by her own feelings toward Luke and their friendship, as she struggles to understand her own relationship with Luke in juxtaposition with the one he shares with his girlfriend, whom he clearly does love. It’s a universal and yet complicated role that the majority of us likely knows a little something about, and Wilde faces it head one, completely encompassing both the joys and the pain of it all.
The biggest underlying conflict for the characters is coming to terms with what it means to commit – how to know if you’re ready, and if you are ready then are you choosing the right person to commit to, and once you’ve made that choice when does the relationship you have become stronger than the temptation of the unknown? These are just a few of the questions the characters are clearly turning over in their minds, something that is conveyed without explicitly saying them out loud. Even the main setting, the Chicago brewery, helps to create the perfect atmosphere in which to explore these themes, as it tests the boundaries of the characters relationships, complete with all the beer you can drink to help push those boundaries toward potential disaster.
There are also nods toward themes of narcissism in modern culture when Chris lends a book of poetry on the subject to Jill, and John Updike’s “Rabbit, Run“ to Kate – who he says reminds him of the infamous Rabbit Angstrom. This role reversal of the female as the self-absorbed character is yet another small but important detail that makes Swanberg’s version of the romantic comedy different. It’s the details like this that come together to create a multi-layered dialog; a sort of reading between the lines exists, and if you pay attention you will be rewarded.
With this film, Swanberg has honed in on the aspects of his young, yet prolific career, allowing him to successfully create something that is both relatable and touching while also integrating a heightened since of realism. The film will have you guessing the fate of these lovers and friends until the very end, and while he’s strayed away from happy endings in the past, Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies offers just enough hope to hold on to without resorting to the cliché.