Can men and women be close friends without complicating things with sex and love?Drinking Buddies takes this question (most famously asked – in pop culture terms, anyway – in When Harry Met Sally…) and strips away the Hollywood sheen, replacing it with a quiet, realistic take of two people who are crazy about each other. But even if they can be together, should they?
Wilde and Johnson play Kate and Luke, co-workers at a brewery in Chicago. Though the two are in romantic relationships with separate partners, they clearly have chemistry together. They flirt in a way reminiscent of middle school kids, goofing around on the job, eating lunch side by side, and getting drunk at a local bar a few times a week. (OK, the “being drunk” aspect might not line up so well with the middle school comparison, but I maintain I wouldn’t have been surprised if Johnson pulled Wilde’s ponytail here.) The couples end up going on a camping trip together, and as you might expect, confusing sexual situations abound, along with the consequences of those scenarios.
Writer/director Joe Swanberg is best known for his work in “mumblecore,” a low budget subgenre which popped up in the past ten years or so characterized by filmmakers directing actors from a basic outline instead of a script, relying heavily on improvisation to capture realistic moments of (mostly white) people in their mid-twenties having quarter-life crises. I haven’t seen Swanberg’s other work (except for You’re Next, in which he acts but didn’t direct), but from what I’ve heard, Drinking Buddies is his most accessible movie. He has his cast to thank for that, because the four leads – including Ron Livingston as Kate’s significant other and Anna Kendrick as Luke’s paramour – all do impressive work, especially given the improv-heavy aspect of the production.
Jake Johnson (of the FOX series “New Girl” and last year’s excellent Safety Not Guaranteed) brings the same scruffy charm and roguish humor to the role of Luke, but it’s Olivia Wilde who leads the charge here. Wilde, an actress who has mostly played beautiful but not particularly interesting characters in her career thus far, handles the comedic and dramatic moments with equal confidence while keeping her character loose and emotionally transparent throughout. It’s roles like this in which she’s able to prove her abilities, not blockbusters where she plays glorified eye candy. If we’re lucky, she’ll start appearing in more of these kinds of roles and less in projects like The Incredible Burt Wonderstone or the cringe-worthy Cowboys & Aliens.
Though it may share a few of the romantic comedy genre’s formulaic elements, Drinking Buddies is far from a standard feel-good romcom. Swanberg is interested in exploring the sides of male/female friendships that aren’t tidily wrapped up in 90 minutes, and the film’s authentic portrayal of the dangers of flirtation make it a worthwhile – if not always comfortable – viewing experience. Until next time…
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